American cities have become a battleground for civil rights struggles between law enforcement officials and the residents they are sworn to protect. A number of voices have emerged from this conflict, calling for reform of local policing and strategies for litigation-based measures for restitution and deterrence. And yet relatively unnoticed are the very local governments meant to secure, support, and protect the safety and interests of their residents. This inattention is especially troubling given the barriers to litigation alone as a solution. And this challenge is exacerbated by the latent, systemic, and structural defects that give rise to civil rights violations and minority underrepresentation in our cities. This Note seeks to shift our attention to institutional reform of local government. Particularly, it asks us to revisit the ways in which we have constrained our cities’ mayors and, in doing so, proposes a cautious return to empowered municipal executives as instigators, allies, and advocates for civil rights.
This Note presents a novel, close examination of executive mayoral governance. It explains how shifting the balance and separation of powers in local government can prove a measure of self-help for cities. Drawing upon jurisprudence, legal theory, case studies, and political science, this Note explains how a strong executive in cities can harness and strengthen traditional tools for reform—from Department of Justice § 14141 litigation and settlements to greater racial diversity in law enforcement to civil disobedience. Though neither a panacea for all ills nor a fit for all instances, a strong mayor can serve as an elemental linchpin for legal improvements in how our cities prevent, handle, and heal from law enforcement violations of civil rights.