The U.S. Conference of Mayors just released its Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice. The report’s recommendations touch on a range of topics, including:

  • Trust and legitimacy
  • Redefining the role of local police and public safety
  • Emphasizing the sanctity of life
  • Protecting equality and due process
  • Respectfully engaging the community
  • Transparency and accountability

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with four members of the Conference’s Police Reform and Racial Justice working group: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, chair of the working group; Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison; Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams; and Columbia, SC Police Chief Skip Holbrook.


Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Chuck Wexler: How are you approaching the “defunding” issue in Chicago?

Mayor Lightfoot: I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks in the three months since the murder of George Floyd. There are some people who think that police departments can’t really reform, and we just need to tear it down and start all over again with a new form of public safety. But that’s not even close to being the majority of people who are weighing in on this topic.

What I’m hearing from folks is that they want to have resources. They feel like cities have allocated so many resources to the police at a time when other community needs have gone unmet. And I don’t disagree with them about the need to make other kinds of strategic investments, whether it’s in public housing, workforce development, mental health, and the list goes on and on. There are a lot of needs across our communities that have not been met.

The other part of this is that because of the neglect that governments have been guilty of in not providing support for communities in other kinds of ways, the one government actor that shows up every single day in communities is the police.

So the working group framed this by asking what the job description of the police should be. Communities should have a conversation about who should be the responder when community needs need to be met. Should it be the police? Should it be a co-responder model in some instances? Or should it be somebody entirely different? I think that’s a worthy conversation.

We do not believe in defunding the police. We believe in having a strategic, data-driven discussion about what the community’s needs are and who is best positioned to meet those needs.

There’s this narrative that the simple way to figure this out is to just look at 9-1-1 calls. In a big city like Chicago, there are a lot of different data points we use to make decisions about how we are going to deploy across our city. 9-1-1 calls are an important piece of information, but that is only one of many data points that drive our deployment strategies. Some folks say, “We should just add up all the 9-1-1 calls. The vast majority of those calls aren’t for violent crime, so why are we spending all this time on the police.” That’s an overly simplistic view, particularly in a big city like Chicago. There are a lot of different ways chiefs and mayors have to think about deployment and what makes the most sense.

Wexler: Does police reform require investment?

Mayor Lightfoot: It does require investment, particularly when we’re talking about a city like Chicago or Baltimore that is living with a consent decree. You can’t back away from the commitments that were made in the consent decree, and we’re certainly not going to do that here in Chicago.

I would also say that the lack of investment in policing shows up elsewhere, and it costs real money. If we don’t have a well-trained police force, one that understands all the parameters and nuances of constitutional policing, that shows up in other ways. It shows up in the loss of legitimacy with members of the public. It shows up in not working efficiently to address communities’ public safety needs. It shows up in lawsuits and overtime. So if we don’t invest in our men and women of the police department, there are very tangible, quantifiable costs associated with that.

Wexler: To cut budgets, many police departments have to cut personnel. What would happen in Chicago if you couldn’t hire?

Mayor Lightfoot: It would mean that our communities would be less safe. In Chicago, over 90% of our budget is personnel. So if you really want to defund the police, what that means as a practical matter is cutting police officers at a time when we, like other cities across the country, are stressed by violence. In this environment, does that make the community safer?

I’m going to steal Commissioner Harrison’s line: When we talk about building a new stadium, we don’t tear the old one down and then think about how we build a new one. If you’re going to transition to another form of public safety, you have to have that ready, able, tested, and proven as a model that will actually keep communities safe.

Chicago has made great strides over the last five years or so at bringing in younger, more diverse officers. With the police contract, if you’re going to cut, you’ll cut on the basis of reverse seniority. That means you’re cutting out the diversity. You’re cutting out the new, probably best-trained officers in the department. That’s counterproductive to what we’re trying to accomplish, which is a very well-trained set of officers who are out there in the communities getting the work done on behalf of residents.

Wexler: What do you hope people take away from this report?

Mayor Lightfoot: I think one of the things we hope for is that it’s another useful tool for mayors and police chiefs. We recognize that there are lots of different types of police departments across the country, and it’s not “one size fits all.” We were focused on producing a toolkit that’s useful and practical for mayors of all stripes, meaning from different geographies, facing different challenges, and in different places on their journeys to police reform and accountability. There are a lot of best practices and appendices that they can use to craft strategies for their own municipalities.

We also wanted to make sure that we were putting down a marker as this discussion around policing continues. Mayors have to be at the heart of this discussion. Whatever comes out of Washington we will be implementing. We want to make sure that our voices are heard, and that we don’t get a lot of unfunded mandated or other directives that don’t reflect the realities of conditions on the ground in our cities.


Baltimore Commissioner Mike Harrison

Wexler: What’s your reaction to the calls to “defund the police”?

Commissioner Harrison: I’ve been telling people that I’m neither afraid nor intimidated by it, because it means different things to different people. Like our report says, we want to reassess what we want police officers doing and figuring out who we want to do it. The question remains whether we cut the money and the work for the police and give the work to someone else. Or do we cut the money and continue to do the work because there’s no one ready to fill the gap on mental illness calls, homelessness calls, or whatever else it might be? We have to figure out the answer, because if money is defunded but the work still remains, we still have to do the work without the funding.

If we do cut the work, who is ready to take the handoff and provide the service that we have been providing? Because we have asked to be all things to all people because there has been a lack of funding in other social services or the things that we need to fix the social ills of society. The police have been around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we are everywhere at all times to handle issues. If there’s no one able to handle it, we create gaps in service. And when there are gaps in service we actually create harm to the community because we’re disengaging and not providing something that was once provided.

That’s where I’m most concerned. Our budget was cut by $22 million. We eliminated a few proactive specialized units and they’re cutting our overtime in half. With about 215 vacant positions, overtime dollars are used to fill shifts as if we’re fully staffed.

We took a sworn oath to provide safety and protection to members of our city, and we’re going to do that. But we’re either going to overrun our budget or there are going to be gaps, and we’re not going to allow there to be gaps.

Wexler: When you were the New Orleans police commissioner, did you need significant resources to reform the department?

Commissioner Harrison: Yes. That was supposedly a 5-year consent decree for $55 million. They’re going into the eighth year of that consent decree now. We were close to the end when I left a year and a half ago. Now I came to Baltimore in the second year of its consent decree.

It is expensive. And Baltimore was far worse than New Orleans was because there were so many technological deficiencies and so many things that need to be done that had been done in New Orleans before the consent decree. So it’s expensive, but it’s what the people envision.

Here’s what our federal judge thinks. He said that the city of Baltimore decided what it wanted reform and its police department to look like when it signed its consent decree. The consent decree is what Baltimore reimagined, and now it can’t go back and change its mind about what it wants the reimagining to look like.

In order for us to become the police department the people pay for, deserve, and expect, we have to make the investment into the department’s training, technology, hiring, retention, recruiting, policy, and equipment. All those things are federally mandated in this consent decree. The city made that promise, and now the city has to live up to it.

Wexler: Do mayors and police chiefs see eye-to-eye on a lot of these issues?

Commissioner Harrison: Yes. While this is a report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, we are fortunate to have police chiefs and other experts as part of this. We could contribute, add context, and talk about some of the nuance from a policing perspective. During those discussions we often heard the mayors say, “that’s extremely interesting.” It sounded like a light went off in their head when they heard us bring context to a point. So I was pleased and proud to be a part of it.


Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams

Wexler: Which recommendations do you think are particularly important?

Chief Williams: Everyone in the group stressed that we need to take care of and look out for our officers. The high-profile incidents we see aren’t the totality of the officers. The majority of men and women who work with us and for us in our cities are proud folks who want to protect and serve. So it’s important to keep in mind the health, wellness, and due process of our officers, while at the same time reimagining and owning some of the sins of the past and present.

We’re talking about de-escalation. We’re talking about banning carotid control techniques absent a life-threatening scenario. We’re looking at changes to our policies and strengthening things like duty to intervene, duty to render first aid, and sanctity of life.

Wexler: What role does collective bargaining have in these reforms?

Chief Williams: We talked about this extensively. We all came to the consensus that if someone does something egregious, a police chief or commissioner should be able to say that person can’t be in their department anymore. I’m not taking that decision lightly, because I know I’m taking away someone’s livelihood. But I have to repair the image, repair the trust, and make sure the good officers are kept in high regard. If I terminate the employment of that person, some bargaining agreement or police officers’ bill of rights shouldn’t allow another entity to give that person their job back, and that’s what I’m facing here in Phoenix. It doesn’t happen often, but I could tell you about 10-11 different scenarios since I became chief where I terminated the employment of someone and either civil service or collective bargaining brought them back.

We just want to be able to uphold our oath and our responsibility. We don’t take it lightly. If someone is terminated or significantly suspended, we want a national registry so that that person can’t go to another agency.

Wexler: Is recruitment challenging in this environment?

Chief Williams: We’ve been able to recruit some very diverse classes at the Phoenix Police Department. We’re still able to do that, but we’re finding that the pool is running dry. Why would someone want to jump into a profession where no matter what happens across the country, everyone is painted with the same brush? We’ve still been able to run academy classes. We were able to get our budget passed without defunding measures. But I’m extremely concerned that if there is defunding, officers who are diverse and well-trained in the latest approaches and tactics will be the first to go because they were the last hired.


Columbia, SC Chief Skip Holbrook

Wexler: How do you build trust in the police in a meaningful way?

Chief Holbrook: We all discussed that we probably have not done a good job of creating our narrative about what we are doing. Throughout this report, we acknowledge all the great work that has already been done, including the recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and PERF’s Guiding Principles. These documents had the leading minds of law enforcement putting the principles of reform down on paper for police chiefs across the country to pick up and run with.

As we’re having much-needed conversation with our social justice and reform activists, who are young, have brilliant minds, and whose hearts are in the right place, I’ve found that they’re surprised to learn that we’re already doing many of the things they’re asking us to do. I think this document brings the mayors into the fold as another group of partners, and they may have the ears of some folks who our message doesn’t resonate with.

Law enforcement does a lot of talking, but I don’t think folks are hearing the reforms that have been put in place. I’ve been doing this 30 years, and it’s remarkable how far our profession has come during that time, particularly the last 5-10 years.

A lot of it has come on the heels of tragedy. We’ve done things wrong, and anytime you can acknowledge a mistake and articulate a course correction it brings credibility to the agency and the individual.

I think we have to continue to push our narrative about reforms and the transformation of modern 21st-century policing.

De-escalation is real, and it saves lives. We have adopted the ICAT de-escalation model here, and things like that work.

I think you create trust and credibility by having the courage to acknowledge mistakes, progressive, industry-standard policies that are public, and being open and transparent about how you police. We know we have gaps with some of our young adults, particularly those from communities of color. That’s a population we have to connect with to build relationships and develop a better understanding.

Wexler: What are you hoping people take away from this report?

Chief Holbrook: I think you want any reports from panels or commissions like this one to be documents that you can apply. It has recommendations that are workable. It’s not a “one size fits all,” and it’s not at 50,000 feet. These are things that are scalable and anybody can apply them to their operations and department administration.

We know there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies, each with different budgets, political will, and community needs. So every agency isn’t going to necessarily enact every single recommendation. But they’re all forward-leaning recommendations that apply across the board to any agency using a progressive 21st-century policing philosophy. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.