LOS ANGELES — It’s a moment that mayors can still describe, months or years later. The first time they get the call: A police officer has killed someone, often that person is black or Latino, and a neighborhood is enraged.
What happens next is often one of the most consequential political balancing acts in American governance. The mayors of America’s larger cities, nearly all members of the Democratic Party and some of whom are black or Latino themselves, must reckon with political priorities that appear in conflict — living up to their rhetoric as champions of marginalized communities while maintaining a close working relationship with police departments often accused of inflicting harm.
“It’s a challenge,” said Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, Calif., a Democrat who is the city’s first black mayor and, at 29, its youngest. “You’re part of the group that has been historically oppressed by government, and then you’re in charge of trying to make the government work.”
He described the challenge in biblical terms: “For some folks, they expect me to be Moses and, with my hands up, say ‘Peace’ and everyone goes quiet.”
As dozens of mayors nationwide now confront nightly protests and huge police deployments in their streets, even Democrats who ran on a platform of police reform and community engagement are trying to balance support for law enforcement with their continuing commitment to change. Last week, after destructive protests erupted across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City said the police there had showed “a lot of restraint.” In Los Angeles, where a peaceful protest turned to mayhem on Saturday night, Mayor Eric Garcetti angered some progressives when he called in the National Guard, just hours after he said doing so was unnecessary.
“Everybody will second-guess,” Mr. Garcetti said on Monday, referring not just to the decision to call in the Guard, but also to the police tactics that included using tear gas and arresting peaceful protesters who refused to move. He said that complaints of police misconduct during the protests would be investigated. “We’ve all read the history books,” he said.
In interviews with more than a dozen Democrats who currently or have previously served as local leaders in high-populated areas, they describe a complex web of political incentives that shape the relationship between mayor and law enforcement, and can turn the candidate with the most liberal reform promises into a conservative champion of law and order once in office.
For some, police autonomy was a necessary cost of maintaining public safety, and of pleasing rank-and-file officers and more moderate voters. Others described a network of shared political consequences that make it hard for a mayor to upset key groups — the police, police unions, local prosecutors and others — particularly if City Hall is seen as a step to higher office.
Larry Krasner, the district attorney in Philadelphia who ran on a reform platform, said local leaders are generally afraid to cross police unions, because of the political clout the unions hold.
“Being close to the leadership of the police union means, ‘Do you have our back?’” he said. “Which really means, ‘Do you have our back more than you have the back of your citizens?’”
Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who made police misconduct a centerpiece of his presidential campaign last year, said city officials should be doing more on police reform.
In his view, many local Democrats are more focused on supporting police unions than considering possible harm done to black and Latino residents.
“There’s a detachment from this issue that needs to change,” he said.
Since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, perhaps no issue has caused more friction between Democratic elected officials and the party’s activist base than criminal justice and policing. During her 2016 presidential bid, Hillary Clinton was prodded to embrace systemic reforms to policing, and so has former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the party’s presumptive 2020 nominee. Candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, which represented a historically diverse field, were repeatedly pushed on the issue, often by younger black and Latino activists. The fights between progressive insurgents and Democratic incumbents in the House have used criminal justice reform as a wedge.
But in the past week, as a wave of unrest has consumed cities across the United States, Democratic mayors are increasingly in the spotlight. President Trump on Monday night threatened to deploy the military if mayors do not “establish an overwhelming presence until the violence is quelled.” The careful calibration of liberal leaders, between projecting empathy for the protesters and denouncing property destruction and theft, shows their progressive ideals being put to a high-stakes practical test. Some of the mayors navigating this turbulence came of age well after the tumult of the 1960s and are fluent in the language of social activism, seeking a way to stand out from their predecessors.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta announced on Sunday that two officers were fired and three others were demoted after a video captured by local news media showed them pulling a woman from her car and using a stun gun on another man. Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville fired the city’s police chief on Monday, after learning that police officers did not record body camera footage during the fatal shooting of a black business owner, David McAtee, that took place that day.
Though mayors have repeatedly condemned vandalism, fewer have spoken critically of the police officers’ conduct, despite public outcry.
“The concerns are legitimate and deserve attention, and the majority of people who are protesting are doing so peacefully,” said Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix. “But as a mayor I feel like I have to say we cannot stand for violence, that setting trees on fire and burning cars is not the answer.”
In Los Angeles, where people have marched downtown and in the Fairfax neighborhood in recent days, the events of 1992 are never far from memory. In the decades since the uprising that followed the acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King, the Los Angeles Police Department has instituted many reforms, earning support from activists who were once vocal critics. But the department has faced several protests after officer-involved shootings in recent years. Still, Mr. Garcetti said in an interview that most large cities lag behind in adopting similar changes.
“We have to figure out a way to humanize both sides of the barricades right now,” he said. “First and foremost, to humanize black people in this country who have disproportionately been dehumanized. But it can’t ever be a one-way street to dehumanize a person who wears a badge. We need them to hear us, but we need to hear them or else we’re going to isolate them into islands that results in the sort of policing we don’t want to see.”
Jane Castor, the mayor of Tampa, Fla., spent more than two decades in the Police department there, eventually rising to become chief — a key part of her appeal as a political leader.
“I don’t know that there is any one person or any one group that despises police brutality more than police officers,” Ms. Castor said in an interview. “As a community we need to acknowledge that George Floyd was murdered, that those actions constituted homicide and then to also recognize and try to understand the pain that is being felt in the black and brown communities.”
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Biden held a virtual round table with Mr. Garcetti, Ms. Bottoms, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minn. The former vice president said he sympathized with protesters’ concerns but also denounced “violence that endangers lives and guts local businesses is no way forward.”
Ms. Lightfoot, who faced some criticism during her 2018 mayoral run about her record of police accountability as leader of the Chicago Police Board, said mayors supported peaceful expression of dissent but were focused on rooting out bad officers.
“Look, we’ve had our fair share of dark days in Chicago around police violence and shooting,” she said. “But I do think it’s important for us to not allow forces of darkness to conflate people’s righteous anger and need to express themselves in their protected First Amendment rights.”
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Miss., said it was time for the party to embrace not just police reform, but “deconstructing the criminal justice system.” Mr. Lumumba, 37, said even if this moment seemed like a flash point, the inequities, racism and despair that create the tension run much deeper.
“There’s an economic reliance on the system of policing,” Mr. Lumumba said. “You have more police today than you ever had. You have city police, county police, state police, federal police, secret police, secret police that watch the secret police. You have probation and parole officers, prison guards, companies that contract out with the prison.”
“We rely on the overincarceration of our society,” he said.
Crime control bills helmed by Mr. Biden in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped transform the relationship between local, state, and federal justice systems. In Monday’s round table with mayors, Mr. Biden said public officials needed to reckon with police brutality, citing the “incredible pain and legitimate anger that is the root of these protests.”
This was not always his position. In a 1994 speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Biden was unequivocal — more police officers made people safer.
“Anybody who does not want cops, then do not ask for them; send them my way,” he said at the time. “Send them to Philadelphia, Wilmington, Trenton, the area I live in. And my daughter will be safer, my wife will be safer, my mother will be safer, and I will be safer. And I will be happy.”
Jennifer Medina reported from Los Angeles, and Astead W. Herndon from Columbia, S.C.