Protester demands to "defund the police" following the May police killing of George Floyd seemed to gain traction at the start of the summer. City officials nationwide promised to slash police department funding, while the Minneapolis City Council even made a drastic pledge to dismantle its city police department.
But nearly four months after Floyd’s death, the local fiscal adjustments driven by community pressure appear to be losing steam. According to a Smart Cities Dive analysis, 17 of 33 major cities that adopted FY21 budgets in July and October, have increased police budgets despite calls for reduced funding.
While cities have largely fallen short on meeting defunding demands, many local officials are turning to a different avenue of reform: police oversight. Of the 21 local police-related measures that will appear on November ballots, roughly half of those will address actions to implement committees and procedures that keep a closer eye on department operations.
Such measures have appeared on ballots in years prior, but "certainly not to this level," said Ballotpedia spokesperson Josh Altic. "This definitely stands out as a year where there’s more measures like this than we’ve seen in a given year before," he said.
A first-time vote for reform in Columbus
Columbus, OH residents will vote on a Civilian Police Review Board and Inspector General Charter Amendment next month. The board would investigate alleged police misconduct, make recommendations to the Division of Police and "appoint and manage" the new position of an Inspector General for the Division of Police.
"It’s the first time ever in our city’s history that voters will have the chance to vote on police reform," Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said. "And if we’re able to pass this with overwhelming support, which we believe we will, it will help strengthen my hand at the negotiating table."
While the city plans to spend about $359 million of its nearly $970 million 2020 general fund budget on police, it has made a series of other recent reforms. Columbus officials joined over 120 localities in declaring racism a public health crisis; updated policy in response to using pepper spray for peaceful protestors; and also called for an independent investigation of its response to protests.
Ginther, who does not support defunding the police, said he supports and demands that the Columbus Division of Police adjust its operations to meet community expectations. "I want to go from a mid-20th century law enforcement agency to a 21st century community policing organization," he said.
Building effective police oversight
Police oversight bodies aren’t new to cities. In fact, a majority of cities (64%) have such a group in place, according to the Policing Project. But the degree to which these oversight bodies can meet community expectations fluctuates depending on the power a body is given.
There are various police accountability models available for cities to follow, with some being more effective than others to achieve "true democratic policing," said Policing Project Chief of Staff Maureen Q. McGough.
One model is a form of "back-end accountability" that provides the public with some type of oversight or insight after something has gone wrong involving the police department, McGough said. That model can often be found in civilian review boards as multi-member bodies that investigate police misconduct complaints.
There’s also a "front-end accountability" model where police commissions have the ability to inform actual policies and practices to help meet community needs. These commissions are typically multi-member and drawn from the community, with an effort to represent the demographics of the community served, she said.
Very few U.S. police commissions, however, actually have the authority to set policy. Twenty six of the country's largest 100 cities have front-end oversight bodies, but only six of those bodies have policy authority, according to a recent Policing Project study.
"For true democratic policing, there really should be some type of authority that the board is given to inform or drive policing policy," McGough said.
Budgets also affect a commission’s potential influence over a local police department and community, McGough said. "If you set up these bodies without some type of funding, it’s very unlikely they’re going to have that much of an impact," she said.
To help structure a robust police oversight body, the Policing Project suggests local officials consider the following questions: "Does the body have the authority to consider systemic change, or only to review a specific incident? Does the body have authority to mandate change, or only to recommend it? Does the body have the budget and resources to make a difference?"
Doubling down on transparency, accountability
Transparency and accountability are the fundamental tenets of democratic policing, and oversight bodies are most effective when those tenets are met, McGough said.
That sentiment was echoed by Vanessa Garrett Harley, deputy managing director for Philadelphia's Office of Violence Prevention. Philadelphia has a proposed Citizen’s Police Oversight Commission on its ballot, which Harley said would have more teeth than the city's current advisory commission when it comes to police transparency and accountability. The commission could also add more visibility into police investigations and provide reassurance to the public that there are some avenues for recourse, she said.
The proposed commission is one of three police reform measures on Philadelphia's ballot. The other measures propose an end to stop-and-frisk and the establishment of an Office of the Victim Advocate.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) Working Group on Police Reform and Racial Justice, which has pushed back against calls to "defund the police," has also doubled down on encouraging cities to incorporate measures that hold officers accountable for any misconduct.
The group released a series of recommendations to guide city policing, which include suggestions to reallocate resources; rethink physical restraint tactics; address inherent bias; foster deliberate community relations; and bolster transparency and accountability.
Such good faith efforts to reform police misconduct at the state and municipal levels are critical to address recent protest demands, Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said in an earlier interview. City officials should show a firm public commitment to reform, indicating to much of the general public that they are taking calls for change seriously, he said.