In the weeks leading up to the District of Columbia’s primary election, a powerful interest group repeatedly hammered council candidate Janeese Lewis George with an attack that in the past has proved devastating: She was soft on crime and unsupportive of the D.C. police force.
“They get up every morning and serve their city,” a campaign mailer delivered to homes across Ward 4, D.C.’s northernmost council district, warned over a picture of five D.C. Metro Police Department officers. “If Janeese Lewis George is elected, THEY WON’T.”
On the opposite side, it cited a tweet Lewis George posted in October 2019: “I will absolutely divest from MPD,” it said, leaving off a key part of Lewis George’s platform: that she would “put money into violence interruption programs” instead.
But the timing made the mailer less of an attack than an argument in favor of Lewis George: It arrived in mailboxes as protests over police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, broke out nationwide and sparked calls for massive overhauls of police departments across the country. Lewis George, who had argued that D.C. should demilitarize its police and pull money from law enforcement budgets to invest in other social services and crime prevention programs, might not have been able to produce a better piece of campaign literature for herself.
Normally, a local council race would have little resonance outside the city or district where it took place. But the mailers and the protests in Washington and nationwide transformed the election into the “first major referendum on policing” in the country since the demonstrations began, said Tahir Duckett, a civil rights attorney in Washington.
The result was clear: On Tuesday, just 24 hours after federal and D.C. police violently cracked down on protests across Washington, Lewis George appeared to have easily defeated incumbent Councilman Brandon Todd ― although the election hadn’t yet been officially called by Friday, she held a seemingly insurmountable 12-percentage-point lead in the Democratic primary race, which in D.C. serves as a de facto general election.
The resounding victory will give Lewis George a powerful voice over a police force that ranks among the nation’s largest, relative to the local population. But it’s also a reminder, criminal justice reform advocates say, that although city councils are often overlooked, perhaps no level of government has more direct power to affect the immediate and sweeping changes to American police departments that protesters and activist groups, including Black Lives Matter, have demanded.
“Mayors and city councils are where it’s at,” said Kate Chatfield, the senior adviser for legislation and policy at The Justice Collaborative, which advocates for wholesale reform of America’s policing and criminal justice systems. “The federal government sucks up so much media attention and energy, but [policing] is a local issue, by and large.”
Alongside mayors, city councils draft and approve metropolitan budgets that determine police funding, giving councilmembers the authority to cut funding for police and spend it on other public services instead, as activists calling to “defund the police” have demanded. In most jurisdictions where police forces are unionized, it’s also the city council’s role to bargain the contracts that, right now, play a massive part in shielding police from accountability.
That means city councils can fix “a big chunk” of the country’s problems with policing, Chatfield said, even if some broader reforms will require state and federal action.
Already, councilmembers in cities experiencing protests have taken action or have pledged to do so. The Los Angeles City Council has proposed cutting $150 million from the police budget; in Minneapolis, City Council President Lisa Bender and others have pledged to “disband our police department and start fresh with a community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach capacity,” Councilman Steve Fletcher wrote for Time this week.
The Los Angeles council changes, which restored police funding to its pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels, are smaller than many activists desired. The District of Columbia’s council, meanwhile, is considering an emergency bill that would ban police from using chokeholds, the sort of meager and incremental changes that don’t go as far as many reform advocates say is necessary.
The election of progressive members like Lewis George, however, could push cities like Washington ― which has in the past spent more per capita on police than any other city, according to a 2015 study ― toward more dramatic overhauls, and similar candidates have a chance to follow in her footsteps elsewhere.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the issues highlighted in protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, could boost the efforts of city council candidates running on similar platforms, including Jecorey Arthur, a 28-year-old musician, educator and activist who is running in the June 23 Democratic primary for an open seat on the Louisville Metro Council.
“I’ve been talking about divest and invest for the past few months now, before any of this popped off,” he told HuffPost this week. “Because it’s not new.”
One of seven Democratic candidates for the seat he’s seeking, Arthur has participated in the the protests that have blanketed downtown Louisville for the last nine days. He said he’s noticed a change in how people approach a campaign message that has focused on Louisville’s deep history of segregation, racism, inequality and police brutality.
Another candidate for the seat, Robert LeVertis Bell, has also called for cutting police budgets. In a March interview with Jacobin, LeVertis Bell criticized Louisville’s “bloated police budget” and blamed politicians who “are afraid to say no to the police department” for it.
Early in his campaign, Arthur said, people “told me not to speak about race as much as I was because Louisville was not ready to have that conversation” ― even in a city council district that has a Black majority.
“But as we see in this moment, everyone is having the conversation,” Arthur said. “Everyone is willing to listen.”
To criminal justice reform advocates, it’s not surprising that Lewis George’s opponent in D.C. or the interest groups backing him seized on her comments about divesting from police ― or that those efforts failed.
Democrats and Republicans have long conflated “policing” with “public safety,” in part because large shares of voters have, too. But local and national polling had shown that the public’s views of policing and criminal justice had begun to shift even before the protests, thanks to the work of Black Lives Matter and organizers and activists. Majorities of Americans oppose increasing the number of police on streets and favor criminal justice reform efforts to reduce the prison population and end harsh sentencing practices. In some big cities, polls have shown that residents favor comprehensive approaches to issues like homelessness and drug use, preferring increased investments in affordable housing, mental health care and other intervention programs instead of criminalization.
“The public wants the problems addressed,” Chatfield said. “That said, I think elections like [Lewis George’s] reveal that when offered alternatives, the public also recognizes that incarceration doesn’t work and that policing doesn’t work. I think Americans have, by and large, moved well past where the politicians are.”
Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter school advocacy group that backed Todd and sent the mailers, had polling suggesting that Lewis George was most vulnerable on policing and crime-related issues, the president of its D.C. chapter told the Washington City Paper.
But the protests have had a dramatic effect on Americans’ views of policing ― a majority now believes the police treat white and Black Americans differently ― and the violent response from police to demonstrations in Washington almost certainly shaped the race’s later stages. In a city where crime has topped residents’ list of concerns, the protests may have only helped convince voters that D.C.’s heavy investments into policing were doing little other than subjecting Black residents to more brutality and violence.
Lewis George, whose district is majority Black and Latino but has a growing white population, won precincts across the area, including in neighborhoods that have been hit by recent crime spikes.
Louisville’s Metro Council is currently considering an incremental police reform bill that disappointed activists. To Arthur, it bolstered his argument that the area needs a young representative who understands what residents want and need.
Much like Lewis George, who backed paid family leave, raising the minimum wage for service employees, and investing in affordable housing and health care access, Arthur argued that Louisville needs to overhaul its approach to policing and make economic investments in communities like his own, where rates of poverty among Black residents have risen even as the city around it has grown and developed.
“Police reform does not reform the issue of race, because as long as we are living in poverty, we will have crime. And as long as we have crime, we will have a heavy police presence,” Arthur said. “So we can fix policing all day long. We can fire these cops and do all sorts of work in the police department itself. But until we address poverty, we will never address racism. The police are just really a symptom of racism, and it’s going to take a full-fledged approach. That includes reparations. That includes investing in our communities and divesting from our police department.”
The election won’t attract nearly as much attention as the Senate primary that will choose a Democratic nominee to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But when it comes to fixing the problems Louisville’s protests have raised, it might be just as important.