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Local elections yield mix results on police reform


Tuesday's election results were mixed when it comes to the issue of police reform more than a year after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. In Austin, Proposition A called on the city to hire and train hundreds of additional officers. More than two-thirds of voters opposed it. Devine Loving was one of them.

DEVINE LOVING: There's a lot of stuff that's happened in Austin where just, you know, pulling, you know, people over for minor offenses, harming them - was kind of just like, why do we need more police officers in those communities?

KURTZLEBEN: And in Cleveland, voters approved a measure to increase civilian oversight of the police force. Brenda Bickerstaff was part of the campaign to get it passed. Her brother was killed by a Cleveland police officer.

BRENDA BICKERSTAFF: Craig is gone. He's not coming back. The committee - this will be justice for anybody coming through the system now. I want to have better cooperation between the police and the citizens of Cleveland.

KURTZLEBEN: But while those cities voted to rein in the police, the highest profile vote took place in Minneapolis. Voters there, like Russell Patterson, rejected a measure that would have abolished the city's police department.

RUSSELL PATTERSON: Crime's off the chain here. At George Floyd's memorial itself, there's at least been seven shootings, eight shootings, 10 shootings. These are gang members, not the cops shooting us.

KURTZLEBEN: Joining us now to talk about what all these results mean is Phillip Atiba Goff. He's the CEO of the Center for Policing Equity. He's also a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale. Phillip, welcome to the program.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Phillip, let's start with Minneapolis. Did it surprise you that the city voted to preserve its police department?

GOFF: No, I wouldn't say that it surprised me. I think that if two years ago, you would ask me whether or not a major city in the United States would vote more than 40% to change the charter such that law enforcement wasn't necessary, I'd say that would be surprising, but the results from last Tuesday were not so much.

KURTZLEBEN: And what do we know from those Minneapolis results about the people who voted against scrapping the police department? What kinds of neighborhoods were those?

GOFF: So, I mean, it's, you know, 50-plus percent of the city - it was all over the city. But it's also the case that there were significant no votes from Black neighborhoods that were blighted by crime. Folks who are concerned about rising violence in their neighborhoods are concerned that if we get rid of law enforcement without a plan for reducing the violence, that they're going to be left, yet again, incredibly vulnerable with concentrated disadvantage and no resources to take care of it.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's move to another city, Cleveland, where the majority of voters voted for a police oversight board. Tell us about what happened there.

GOFF: Yeah, so, I mean, in Cleveland, what we saw was a strong form of accountability for the law enforcement that they have. So there's going to be a 13-member commission. And instead of law enforcement having the ultimate power to discipline officers and do investigations, for the first time in Cleveland's history, it will be that commission that says, nope, we do the investigation. We decide who's going to be punished. And that way, you are accountable to the people.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's move to one more city - Austin, Texas - which is known for being a pretty liberal city. Given that, did the proposal to increase policing there - did it have much of a chance in the first place?

GOFF: Oh, absolutely. We've seen since the summer of 2020 law enforcement budgets increased across the country. I think one of the things that's really unique about what happened in Austin, though, is that you had firefighters and the mayor come out and say, if we give law enforcement more money, there's less money for some of the other things that you want, like fire and medical. So the fact that you had people actually talking about the budgetary realities there - that's rare. Historically, in this country when we talk about law enforcement budgets, it's as if they come out of thin air because no one wants to talk about the things that are getting missed because we spend so much on law enforcement.

KURTZLEBEN: We've talked about these three cities, but those aren't our only data points from this Election Day. Tough-on-crime candidates won races for mayor of Seattle, district attorney in two Long Island counties. What does this say about the Defund the Police push? Has that movement failed to win widespread support? It would seem that it has.

GOFF: Yeah, so definitely, I disagree with that argument. From almost the beginning, you saw partisan Democrats saying, defund is a bad slogan. It's not helping us - as if partisan Democrats were the ones who created the slogan. It doesn't work for certain partisan Democrats. For certain, it doesn't work for centrist Democrats. But it wasn't for them. Not everything is for you. It was created by activists to engage and activate folks in communities who are enraged by the persistent killing of particularly Black folks in communities that have experienced concentrated disadvantage and vulnerability. And it worked. Lots of people got activated around it. They took to the streets, and they've stayed engaged for months.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so you characterized Defund the Police as successful. But also, this measure did fail in Minneapolis. How do those two things square together?

GOFF: I think it's overwhelmingly successful. We're having a conversation about it. It's on T-shirts and buttons. You got a lot of students coming into college and in high school who understand the phrase and what it means and are allowing that to shape what they imagine is possible in public safety. So it's very successful on that dimension. So no, you know, Measure 2 didn't pass in Minneapolis on Tuesday, but there are other elements and efforts that have passed in places like Ithaca in Tompkins County, where there's not money being taken out. But exactly what they're asking for in Measure 2, which is the conditions for evaluating how much we need armed responders, is being put into place.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. So you mentioned smaller jurisdictions there, and that's the thing that I was wondering about. We've talked a lot about big cities here, but it sounds like some of the most interesting police reform efforts might be happening outside of those major cities.

GOFF: Absolutely. It's not just happening in big cities. It's an important thing to be paying attention to since we know you're twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement if you're in a rural or exurban area than if you're in a densely populated urban area.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, you work directly with police departments across the country to improve their practices. I'm wondering - what kinds of reforms are sticking, and what kinds of reforms are proving effective? Are there any common threads?

GOFF: There's a lot of stuff that we're seeing work. So, for instance, the STAR Program in Denver has incredibly promising results, where they've essentially said, we want to send community mental health responders out when there's a mental health crisis. There's no reason for a badge and a gun to be there unless there's a threat of violence. And the chief, who is not any form of radical reformer - he's a career law enforcement officer - said, we're saving lives with this. It is criminal that we've never done it before. Summer employment, particularly for adolescents, is really good. And again, we've seen that happening in Chicago. And a couple of other cities want to do more of that kind of stuff. But because we don't cover that as crime - we don't cover that as law enforcement. We don't cover that as a policing issue. Oftentimes, those things are completely segregated. And when we start telling those stories together, I think we're going to have a fuller picture of what can work as we're building up the research for it.

KURTZLEBEN: Phillip Atiba Goff is the CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University. Phillip, thank you so much.

GOFF: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.