Mayor Johnson is wise to partner with police union on reforms

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, second from right, speaks Tuesday to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, second from right, speaks Tuesday to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington. The Associated Press

Mayor Kevin Johnson went to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday with an ambitious goal in mind: To make Sacramento a national model for a police department and community working together.

Success is much more likely because the head of the city’s police union went with him.

Johnson made it a point to introduce Dustin Smith, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, at the first public meeting of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed last month during the huge public outcry that followed the police killings in Ferguson, Mo., New York and Cleveland.

Johnson, who was on a panel with the mayors of Baltimore and Philadelphia, told the task force he wants to partner with the union and rank-and-file officers – in contrast to the conflict between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD union.

The task force – which also heard Tuesday from law enforcement officials, legal experts, civil rights advocates and others – is examining how to strengthen public trust in police while also reducing crime. It plans to submit an initial report to the president in March.

To his credit, Johnson has been vocal on the issue of police reform. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he appointed a working group of mayors and police chiefs who plan to issue recommendations next week.

The mayor has been active locally as well, hosting four community forums and bringing together police, clergy, activists, community leaders and young people. That surely helps explain why in Sacramento, protests have been nonviolent.

His push for police reform has not been without controversy, however. After a Ferguson police officer wasn’t indicted in November for killing Michael Brown, Johnson reacted by saying it was “just a sad day for America.” To which, Smith complained: “a complete slap in the face to law enforcement.”

The two cleared the air in a meeting the next morning. Johnson told the story to the task force, calling it “the beginning of our relationship becoming real.”

That partnership will continue to be tested. The mayor is urging the Police Department to look at better training for officers, consider testing body cameras and be aggressive about diversifying a force that is overwhelmingly white in a city where other ethnic groups make up a majority of the population.

Police Chief Sam Somers, who has already launched some efforts to increase diversity, plans to give a status report on post-Ferguson reforms to the City Council on Jan. 27. Over the weekend, Somers also highlighted that this year, nearly 240 officers were given two-year patrol beats – compared with the previous one-year beats – so they have longer to get to know a neighborhood.

If Johnson can help make Sacramento a national leader for community policing, that will do as much – if not more – to ensure our city is safe and vibrant as anything else the mayor has accomplished.