WASHINGTON – Just a few blocks away from the White House, nearly 300 mayors from across the country came together Wednesday and Thursday to tackle their cities’ top problems, including violence and homelessness.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors 84th Winter Meeting at the Capital Hilton focused on a broad number of issues that many cities face today, including the need to increase police and community trust and veteran homelessness.
Participants included Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, USCM president, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Before a panel discussion Wednesday on “Reducing Violence and Strengthening Police/Community Trust,” Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a press conference. One protester held a sign with a list of names followed by “Murdered by Baltimore Police. Mayor SRB who’s next?” Another sign read #ResignRahm, referring to the calls for Emanuel to resign after the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer. Rawlings and Emanuel have drawn backlash in recent months and calls for their resignation for their handling of the Freddie Gray and McDonald cases.
But neither of these names was mentioned at the panel that included Rawlings as moderator, Emanuel, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu and National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial.
“It should be clear to everyone in this room that something has gone terribly wrong in America, at the moment. We have dust-ups all over the country. Those are not just one-offs,” Landrieu said.
In his opening remarks, Dotson said that guns are St. Louis’ biggest cause of concern and that Missouri has “incredibly liberal gun laws.”
“Guns are our number one concern. St. Louis had 188 murders last year, the most that we’ve had since the mid-90s. One-hundred-seventy-nine of those were committed with firearms.”
Dotson called for legislation and meaningful gun laws as a solution and said that municipalities should be able to regulate guns at the local level. The Supreme Court, in a case brought in the District of Columbia, limited local governments’ abilities to regulate guns.
While Dotson was also quick to reinforce the value of a healthy police-community relationship, Emanuel avoided any mention of community policing until the very end, focusing instead on gangs and guns plaguing Chicago and the success of his summer jobs program.
“The trust factor is not just a goal. It’s a key ingredient to effective community policing,” Emanuel said.
When Rawlings-Blake asked Dolton to give advice to mayors about how to increase trust in police, he said commitment to diversity is key.
“Mayors need to invest in their police departments, make a long-term commitment to diversity and give them the tools and the training. We have to make sure we have quality police officers that look like the community and are open and transparent.”
The second day of the conference moved away from police trust and focused on veterans’ homelessness, with first lady Michelle Obama as keynote speaker.
“For generations, too many of our veterans – from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – have fallen on hard times and wound up with nowhere to call home,” Obama said. “I know we can all agree that this is an absolute outrage.”
Obama began the “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness” in 2014 through a coalition of more than 800 mayors and local leaders across the U.S.
“I took on this challenge very scared about 18 months ago, but you don’t say no to the first lady,” Garcetti said. “But I took on the challenge scared because in LA we started with 2,585 homeless vets, a number that can be overwhelming.”
Garcetti said the 15 veterans for every 10,000 people who live in LA have been housed, and that the fight doesn’t end there. The city has to stay with these veterans and ensure their quality of life through jobs and general well-being.
Obama used LA as an example of the success of her program.
“Just take the example of Los Angeles,” Obama said. “Now, LA has the largest homeless population in this country, but that didn’t stop Mayor Garcetti from boldly committing himself and his city to this challenge. So far, they’ve found permanent housing for over 5,500 veterans. And in September, Mayor Garcetti announced that LA is committing an extra $100 million to ending homelessness.”
Garcetti ended his speech by pledging to continue to fight what has been one of Los Angeles’ biggest issues.
“We can win this war,” Garcetti said. “We can fulfill this mission.”
President Barack Obama hosted a bipartisan group of more than 250 mayors at the White House on Thursday evening. Obama touched upon a wide range of issues including criminal justice reform and the Flint, Mich., water crisis, which he called an “inexcusable situation.”
“When cities are strong, America is strong,” Obama said.
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