For two hours Sunday, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson led a gathering of mayors from across the nation in a spirited and at times emotional discussion about America’s racial divide and tensions over policing in minority communities.
With the shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., as the catalyst, Johnson used his role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to bring together more than 30 mayors to share their perspectives on the racial inequities and simmering anger that the case has pushed into the national spotlight.
“Ferguson is about each and every one of us,” he told the mayors gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. “Michael Brown’s death cannot simply be another statistic or another local story. It’s our responsibility as mayors that we don’t wait for another tragedy to happen. We must put in place the solutions.”
The panel discussion that followed covered broad ground, raising points of tension without easy answers: disparities between the racial makeup of many police departments and the communities they serve; pervasive inequities between whites and blacks in income and employment rates; and lingering distrust between law enforcement officers and minority communities.
Among the panelists was Benjamin Crump, who is representing Brown’s family and was lead attorney for the parents of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose shooting by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012 set off similar protests.
Crump said his law office gets 100 calls a month concerning questionable police shootings and emphasized the need for transparency, calling for police departments to be “open and honest” immediately when there’s an officer-involved shooting.
“You can say, ‘We don’t know what happened, but we’re going to find out together.’ There’s a gulf of mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement, and we have to get past that.”
St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay, who sent officers to help contain the rioting that erupted after the Ferguson shooting, said the episode underscores economic tensions endemic to many American cities. A report released earlier this month found stark divides in the St. Louis region, with race playing a major factor in where people live, how much they make and how long they will live.
Though the ongoing protests in Ferguson have drawn people from across races, he said, “The core are African Americans saying we are tired of being powerless and tired of being treated as if we don’t have value as human beings.
“They want something meaningful, good and lasting to come out of it.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank was among the panelists who support the use of body cameras in police stops as a way of documenting police behavior – good and bad – and building trust. His department is among a small wave of cities across the country adopting the technology on a wide scale.
“Anytime a police officer has to use force, that’s a failure of our society,” Burbank said. “The first alternative is always a discussion, an interaction.”
The time to build a relationship with your community, he added, “is not when you have a riot on your hands. … The most important thing is for officers to empathize with the people they interact with every day.”
And the public, he said, should trust police enough to say, “This young man has a problem – not for incarceration, but for intervention.”
Not all the mayors were in agreement about the use of body cameras, but they generally agreed that the issue of police bias – real or perceived – must be addressed.
“Who are we recruiting?” asked Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, a city that is 84 percent African American. “Do you want to protect and serve? Or do you really just want to carry a gun? That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Residents need to be able to sit down with police officers, CEOs of a city’s large corporations and members of its faith communities, Freeman-Wilson said. The way to end pent-up frustration is by removing barriers to jobs and education, creating opportunities and “simply letting people know ‘I am listening to you, even if I don’t agree with you.’ ”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he’s in favor of body cameras, because they solve and prevent crimes. But the problem, he said, transcends race: “We have a violence problem in the United States of America. Every day, 29 people are killed.”
Nutter said he has lost seven police officers, three firefighters and two other city workers to violent crime during his tenure, and called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the root causes of violence.
The Ferguson shooting and aftermath have altered the way his officers do their jobs, Nutter said: “Three weeks ago, a 911 call comes from Philly about a man with a gun, and one of my officers takes one in the head when he was 10 feet away from the man with the gun.” The officer was white, the suspect black, and when he was lying in the ground thinking about firing back at the suspect, “he told me, he started thinking about Ferguson, and asked me, ‘What should I have done?’ ”
Nutter, who is African American, told him, “You don’t need to be thinking about Ferguson or anything else. Your job is to protect yourself and the public.”