By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
AL.com staff writer
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin struggled to be heard through a bullhorn as he pleaded with hundreds of protesters on May 31. That evening, demonstrators had attempted to topple a Confederate monument with a chain and pickup truck.
Subsequently, demonstrations and vandalism prompted police responses that including issuing curfews, arresting protesters and journalists and calls for reform.
For Woodfin, it was – and is – a pivotal moment. In the wake of protests sparked by police officers killing George Floyd and a widening movement to deconstruct institutional racism, leaders like Woodfin are in a precarious position: They must be responsive protesters’ demands for change while also leading their cities’ police departments.
The Birmingham mayor is not alone as counterparts in Alabama cities of Montgomery and Talladega as well as his contemporaries across the region face a similar quandary. Woodfin’s office did not respond to interview requests for this story. But in the aftermath of the Birmingham protests, Woodfin has since removed the Confederate statue in downtown’s Linn Park, and announced a 30-day internal review of the police department.
So far, Woodfin has stopped short of calling for the formation of a citizen’s review board to review police actions.
In other cities, in Alabama and around the South, some Black mayors are looking to such review boards as a critical first step. Mayor Steven Reed, elected in 2019 as Montgomery’s first Black mayor, says his father, a former city councilman, attempted to create a citizen review board decades ago. Now, as the capital city’s leader, Reed sees an opportunity to implement one.
“(This is) something that had been on my agenda. But probably without the protests, without the killing of George Floyd…I don’t know if we would be doing it right now,” he said.
Reed says he does not want to move funds from the police budget in response to a national movement to defund police departments. He would, however, like to increase funding for social services and move from militaristic training to what he calls a “guardian” mentality for police officers.
In Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said he has spent several years pushing for policing accountability in his city.
He says across the South, communities are changing.
“They are also seeing the dearth of leadership on the national scale, and they’re looking inward at the solutions that are being offered, and I think that is leading to more progressive leadership,” said Lumumba, who participated in the 2014 Ferguson protests over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown and was elected mayor in 2017.
During his first years in office, in response to several cases in which police fatally shot citizens, Lumumba pushed to review the city’s use-of-force policy and to release the names of officers involved in shootings. Last month, he implemented new policies. In many U.S. police departments, internal investigations are the only oversight to review use-of-force incidents and officer-involved deaths. Lumumba said he is working to create an outside review board for use-of-force incidents.
He added that young, progressive Black mayors are pressured from all sides, adding that the role of mayor is limited and misunderstood at times. For example, he said he has had to explain to some constituents that his office lacks prosecutorial powers.
“I feel that this is a seminal moment in the movement for police reform that we should embrace… to move the needle,” he said.
A world that’s changed
In 2016, as Sharon Weston-Broome campaigned to be the first woman and the first African American woman to lead Baton Rouge, two white police officers killed Alton Sterling, a Black man, sparking national outrage. A week later, three Baton Rouge police officers were ambushed and killed.
After she took office, the police department — under a new chief — implemented new training, de-escalation policies, banned strangleholds and chokeholds and put body cameras on officers.
Use of force incidents have dropped as a result, she said. Weston-Broome, like many African American mayors in the South, must delicately navigate the racial politics of governing a majority Black city where white citizens still wield significant economic influence.
While Black residents expect her to address issues that impact them, some white residents resent her focus on low-income areas of the city, she said. But with recent protests, Westin-Broome feels vindicated in her approach.
“I believe people — Black, white — they’re all having a moment of realization that we are connected. That’s why we’ve seen such diverse protests that have taken place,” she said.
Stephen Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., is a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ newly formed working group on policing and racial justice. His city has increased officer diversity, launched a public data portal with use of force incidents, incentivized officers to reside in the city with down-payment assistance and created a citizen review board.
Benjamin said his administration’s “21st Century Policing” approach was inspired by the Obama Administration and focuses on training, cultural sensitivity, transparency and community relationships in the face of deteriorating social and mental health safety nets.
“We need to continue constantly training our officers to be well prepared in a world that’s changed around them,” Benjamin said.
‘A sense of urgency’
Perhaps the biggest task ahead for Black Southern mayors is bringing about change in the culture of police departments as well as in law enforcement oversight. Mayor Lumumba of Jackson, Miss., says he believes the system of policing in America is fundamentally flawed.
“I believe there are good people who are in the law enforcement profession, but I do not believe there is such a thing as a good police officer,” he said. “It’s not an indictment on the individual as it is on the structural makeup of the policing profession.”
Talladega, Ala., Mayor Timothy Ragland, is also the first African American elected to his position in 2019, which he says gives him a distinct perspective on policing.
“We know the feeling when your heart drops to your toes and you see those flashing lights in your rear view mirror,” Ragland said, adding that as a mayor: “You also understand you’re responsible for people’s lives.”
Ragland says he is open to considering new approaches to policing, especially if the initiative comes from the community.
Reed believes state leaders should move toward reform without delay.
“I look at this (with) a sense of urgency. I see this as an inflection point of change,” he said. As a starting point, he adds: “What better place than Montgomery?”
Sarah Whites-Koditschek is an investigative reporter for AL.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahWhitesk or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.