Free assembly vs. public safety: US mayors making it work

Why We Wrote This

Long months of civil disorder belie progress some U.S. mayors are making on reforms demanded by protesters and in best practices for dealing with the protests themselves. 

Noah Berger/AP
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to Black Lives Matter protesters on July 22, 2020. Despite months of headline-grabbing racial injustice protests marred by vandalism, chaos, and shooting deaths, the mayor has listened to protesters and engineered sometimes less-noticed reform.

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After a summer of protests, rage is still flowing. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, erupted in riots this week after a police shooting. And in Los Angeles, a gunman shot two sheriff’s deputies in their patrol car on Saturday, sparking protests against the officers at the hospital treating them and at LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home.

Mayors face a tricky balancing act in what has been the costliest civil disorder in U.S. history – guaranteeing the right to free speech and assembly, while maintaining public safety. 

Mayors set the tone but can be targeted by protesters: Not just Mayor Garcetti’s home was set upon, but those of mayors in Portland, Oregon; St. Louis; Chicago; Seattle; and Pittsburgh.

The key to managing the disorder, say mayors and observers, is real, noticeable reform, and strong communication with the public and stakeholders, including law enforcement.

But, while mayoral power is often limited, from a legal perspective, some cities are making progress on reforms demanded by protesters and in best practices for dealing with the protests themselves. This may not be widely noticed, says Christopher Shortell, a political science professor at Portland State University, “because it’s a lot more dramatic to see the mattress that’s burning.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been getting it from all sides. 

After more than 80 days of protests over racial injustice and policing, one of the city’s biggest real estate developers emailed the mayor and his City Council colleagues last month, warning about businesses leaving because of the “lawlessness you are endorsing downtown.” Many businesses in the city core are still boarded up – and now shrouded in smoke from wildfires. 

Over the summer, protesters against police brutality and racial injustice sporadically demonstrated at the mayor’s condominium. When a large crowd broke windows, sprayed graffiti, and set fires at his building on Aug. 31, he announced he’d be moving.  

As Alison Gash, a Portlander and political science professor at the University of Oregon, puts it: Mayor Wheeler is “in a tough spot.”

And so are mayors nationwide, as they grapple with concerns about police brutality and systemic racism during a sharply divided presidential election season. It’s a tricky balancing act – guaranteeing constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, while maintaining public safety when demonstrations turn violent or destructive.

After a summer of protests, rage is still flowing, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where demonstrators were arrested this week for vandalism and rioting after a police shooting, to Los Angeles, where a gunman shot two sheriff’s deputies in their patrol car on Saturday. At the hospital where the deputies were being treated, protesters shouted “death to the police” – which LA Mayor Eric Garcetti called “abhorrent.”

While mayors set a tone and are targeted by protesters – indeed, protesters have set upon not just Mayor Wheeler’s residence but Mayor Garcetti’s and those of mayors in St. Louis, Chicago, Seattle, and Pittsburgh – the power of mayors is relatively limited, from a legal perspective at least, in many cities. 

But despite the costliest civil disorder in U.S. history, four months into the protests, some cities are making progress on both the reforms demanded by protesters and in best practices of dealing with the protests themselves. 

Burning mattresses obscure progress

For example, in Portland, late-night confrontations with law enforcement, a July showdown with federal forces, and the fatal shooting of a man affiliated with a right-wing group by a self-proclaimed anti-fascist on Aug. 29 have obscured progress on racial justice, says Christopher Shortell, a political science professor at Portland State University. 

That progress includes a series of police accountability measures passed by the Oregon Legislature in June, and a $62 million fund for “Black Relief and Resiliency” to support Black individuals, nonprofits, and businesses especially hard hit by the pandemic. Portland is discontinuing the use of armed police officers in high schools and redirecting some police funds to communities of color.

“Constant political pressure is what has led to continued attention by elected officials, but that doesn’t get noticed because it’s a lot more dramatic to see the mattress that’s burning,” says Professor Shortell. He cites a “significant disconnect” between the national portrayal of Portland engulfed by chaos and the actuality of very localized, late-night clashes with law enforcement.

The key for city leaders managing these situations, say mayors and observers, is real, noticeable reform, and strong communication with the public and stakeholders, including law enforcement.

“It’s the external relationships, the dealing with the community, the media and so on, being seen as listening and acceptable, that’s the job of the mayor,” says Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s a very difficult job.”

Joshua Trujillo/Seattlepi.com/AP/File
Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, seen here in a 2009 City Council event at the Alaskan Way Viaduct, says during his seven-year tenure he faced 30 public demonstrations and had only one arrest because he changed policing procedures for these events.

When Greg Nickels became mayor of Seattle in 2002, it was just over a year after violent clashes between 50,000 protesters and police had overwhelmed the city during the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference. He was intent on ensuring the city never went through that again, the former Democratic mayor recalls.

He talked with his police chief about having officers in crowds to prevent mobs from forming, instead of in riot gear separated from the crowd. Before protests they would set clear “rules of engagement” for protesters: Free speech and civil disobedience rights would be respected, but unlawful behavior would not be tolerated.

In his seven years as mayor, Mr. Nickels says there were about 30 marches and protests – mostly about the Iraq War and immigration – and only one arrest. 

“We need to protect that free speech, but we have to build a little box around it that if there’s illegal action we have to deal with it,” he adds.

Mr. Nickels never would have turned over a portion of Seattle to “vigilantes” – whether of the right or left – referring to the “Chop” occupation (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) over the summer, he says. In early June, protesters staked out a six-block area around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct headquarters.

Old-fashioned tool: Listen to protesters

But Mayor Jenny Durkan and then-Police Chief Carmen Best immediately began talking with protesters.

The city met some protester demands on policing, for example by restricting the use of crowd-control munitions. Ms. Durkan also dispatched a team to negotiate plans to facilitate traffic and rescue in the protest zone, shrinking the footprint while activism and street art continued. African American community leaders stepped in as violence in the zone escalated along with community complaints, and gradually protesters began to depart until only a small group remained around the precinct building. On July 1, police moved back in with limited opposition.

That old-fashioned tool – listening to protesters and acting on their concerns – is also a way to prevent violent protests.

Elaine Thompson/AP
As part of Seattle's broader efforts to reimagine the role of police officers in response to anti-racism and anti-police protests, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at a Sept. 2, 2020, press conference the shift of 100 officers from specialty units to patrols to increase community engagement and speed up 911 response.

Austin, Texas, has seen protests against police brutality and racial inequality after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in late May. Though there have been a few incidents of violence and vandalism, the protests have been almost entirely peaceful. 

And Austin officials have begun to respond to protesters’ demands, including “trying to reimagine policing as a component of public safety,” says Steve Adler, the city’s mayor.

Most notably, the City Council last month passed a new budget that could reallocate tens of millions of dollars of police funds and functions to other city departments. One $80 million fund could see primarily civilian functions like forensics and victim services “decoupled” from the department. 

“Those are targeted, constructive things to do consistent with what our community wants us to do, freeing up time for our police to focus on real crime,” says Mayor Adler.

But with the protests and debate over police reform politicized by conservatives and progressives, mayors like Mr. Adler find themselves struggling to cut through the heated rhetoric. 

In Austin, progressives celebrated the new budget as a $150 million reallocation of police funding, while conservatives – including Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor – criticized it as a $150 million strike to “defund the police.” Both are technically wrong. Only about $20 million of the cuts are immediate, with the rest potentially being redirected in the future, and no clear timeline for if or when those funds will be redirected.

Mayor Adler, a Democrat, says rhetoric focusing on violence distracts from the main grievances of the protesters, along with other important issues like the country’s response to the pandemic.

“As we approach November, I think we’re going to hear more arguments that are intended to distract us from those kinds of issues by raising issues that would suggest that cities aren’t safe, or that mayors don’t care about safety,” says Mayor Adler.

On Sept. 2, President Donald Trump asked the Justice Department to develop a list of “anarchist jurisdictions” the federal government should seek to withhold funding from, a move criticized by major city mayors around the country as unlawful and intentionally divisive.

In the meantime, Mayor Wheeler announced he’s shedding some of his portfolio so he can focus on “extreme challenges” facing the city. Last week, he directed police not use one kind of tear gas, in part because it is seeping into people’s homes. But police noted they used it “sparingly” in “life-safety” events.

In many cities mayors act mostly as the head of the city council and have limited ability to take policy or executive actions themselves. Day-to-day operations – including public safety – are the purview of city managers.

Even Mr. Wheeler, who is in effect the police commissioner, had to set up a new process to put three suspect police officers on administrative duty last week because the independent review board is so backed up with complaints, explains Professor Shortell.

And for most mayors, particularly ones of medium and small towns, there hasn’t been much rioting or looting to deal with. One analysis by the U.S. Crisis Monitor found that in over 10,000 protests between May 24 and Aug. 22, approximately 5% involved violence.

And yet the cost of damage from vandalism and looting in protests across 140 cities after the May 25 death of Mr. Floyd has been significant – between $1 billion and $2 billion from May 26 to June 8, according to the Insurance Information Institute.  

Professor Shortell reminds that policy changes come more slowly than the public wants. Indeed, a recent survey by the Portland firm DHM Research found that a majority of Oregon voters disapprove of how elected leaders – President Trump, Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, and Mr. Wheeler – have responded to protests in the United States and Oregon.

It’s also hard to sustain pressure for change. Protests that were thousands strong in Portland dwindled to hundreds, and the daily early evening “nonviolent protest” at Pioneer Courthouse Square downtown stopped being scheduled after Labor Day. 

While the police have not reported any violent clashes and arrests since Sept. 8, Sgt. Kevin Allen, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, wrote in an email to the Monitor that poor air quality from wildfires may have discouraged protesters.

But he’s fairly certain about one thing: “We do anticipate more demonstrations will be coming leading up to the election.”

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Seattle.  

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