Trending Topics: What Mayors Are Tweeting About Shifts in Public Safety Policy


  • Becca Heilman
October 30, 2020 - (4 min read)

Local elected officials are uniquely positioned to help their communities manage the economic and health impact of COVID-19 and to address severe chronic inequities exposed by the pandemic. This blog is part of a series of CitiesSpeak posts on re-imagining public safety and a continuation of a series dedicated to highlighting mayors’ priorities to help guide and focus local responses to support residents’ health and safety in the near term, and to position the city to improve equity and resiliency in the longer term.

America’s cities are facing public safety challenges in response to COVID-19, extreme weather events, calls for racial justice and demands to re-imagine public safety in the wake of the murders of Walter Wallace, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. NLC analyzed the 100 most populous cities to understand how mayors are communicating news of changes in city responses and policies, using data collected from Twitter as of October 16th. Eighty three percent of mayors from these cities tweeted about public safety during 2020, with over half of all tweets focused on police reform and response to protests and crime.

In light of recent protests against police violence, mayors used Twitter to communicate changes in use-of-force policies related to chokeholds, officers’ duty to intervene, de-escalation and implicit bias training. Baton Rouge, La. requires de-escalation and verbal warnings before deadly use is deployed. Denver, Colo. initiates police-conduct investigations even without a formal complaint being filed and requires all officers to file detailed use-of-force reports whenever they draw their weapons. Chicago, Ill. created a Use of Force Dashboard, and Indianapolis, Ind. is creating a new facility for use-of-force and de-escalation training to better mimic what police experience day to day. “While we may come from different backgrounds and professions, we are all united in our goal: create better policies and better training for our officers […] and prevent any excessive use of force incidents from ever happening,” tweeted Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

83% of mayors from cities analyzed tweeted about public safety during 2020, with more than half of all tweets focused on police reform and response to protests and crime.

As protests against racial injustice continue, some mayors used Twitter to communicate changes to typical crowd control methods deployed by police. For example, Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore. and Philadelphia, Pa. stopped the use of tear gas for crowd control. Austin also ended the use of impact munitions on people exercising the First Amendment, and Columbus, Ohio stopped the use of pepper spray to diffuse non-aggressive, non-violent crowds. Though these weapons are designated as “non-lethal,” they can cause serious injuries or death. Similarly, Pittsburgh, Pa. is demilitarizing its police force by reducing the use of military weaponry that is more likely to kill or injure civilians – banning the purchase of surplus U.S. military equipment and weapons by its Bureau of Police. “Please know that we have seen and heard the cries of thousands of Philadelphians demanding change and proclaiming a simple but powerful truth: Black Lives Matter,” tweeted Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. “We are focusing on reconciliation, on listening—and on taking action for change.”

Mayors also used Twitter to announce new approaches for achieving police accountability and transparency such as implementing body cameras and independent oversight bodies. In New York, N.Y., police disciplinary records will now be posted online and trial decisions will be made public. Louisville, Ky., Oakland, Calif. and Richmond, Va. have created civilian police review committees. To involve the community in these processes, many cities are hosting virtual discussions and convening task forces and advisory boards. “We welcome everyone’s participation in this critical work,” tweeted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

In addressing these public safety challenges, mayors now actively use social media to highlight emerging policies that begin to address systematic inequities, promote community health and safety and provide accountability to the public. As Boston Mayor Marty Walsh tweeted, “Systemic racism kills and it destroys trust and hope. The new level of passion in the movement for justice inspired us to listen and work more urgently.”

Join a plenary panel discussion at 1:00pm ET on October 30 focused on municipal leadership to reimagine public safety in cities, convened as part of the 50-site Fall Convening of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge and as a follow-up to NLC’s recent National Forum.

Join us for a plenary panel discussion.

In a conversation moderated by NLC CEO Clarence Anthony, local leaders will discuss their cities’ responses to calls to defund, dismantle and reform law enforcement and move toward more equitable systems to ensure public safety.

About the Author

Becca Heilman

About the Author

Becca Heilman is a Research Intern in the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.