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How Cities Are Transforming Public Safety at the Local Level

March 23, 2021

The deaths of Black residents at the hands of law enforcement led to national unrest and protests in over 2,000 cities across America in 2020.

The losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain—and years before, of Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and far too many others—led this country to a reckoning: public safety needs a re-imagining, a transformation.

The movement away from traditional law enforcement response requires leadership and a true commitment to engage community. At the National League of Cities this moment reinforced the need and importance of the voices of local elected officials, many of whom are at the forefront of this work. The commitments of these officials, in collaboration with residents, spark city movement toward equity-driven public safety systems.

For mayors and councilmembers to speak about engaging communities is only natural because they are elected by and represent their residents. Many local leaders have recognized the gravity of this moment and the importance of addressing residents’ concerns. This gravity means that their words, and the actions that follow, carry great weight and responsibility.

In January, NLC’s Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force convened for the first time as an organized response to these needs. The group, co-chaired by Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and David Holt of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is made up of more than 20 mayors and councilmembers from across the country.

Representative of various perspectives, the Task Force’s goal is to amplify city-led initiatives that center community in public safety efforts. Several of the Task Force Members represent regions that are also working toward jail reduction and reduced disparities through the Safety and Justice challenge—providing a strong primer in transforming systems.

“This work demands a hard look at each community’s vision for public safety, accountability, and the opportunity for residents to not only to be consulted about desired outcomes but also to fully own the process of reimagining public safety,” said co-chair, Mayor David Holt.

“The trauma and pain experienced by residents due to systemic disinvestment in communities specifically in Black and Brown communities, must be addressed holistically and through transformations that start at the local level,” said co-chair, Mayor Ras Baraka.

City innovations are serving as an inspiration and conversation starter for the Task Force. Some examples include:

Community & Resident Engagement

  • At the center of national attention, the Minneapolis City Council has pushed to dismantle their police department and re-invent their local public safety system with a community focus.
  • In July 2020, the City of Columbus adopted a set of legislative priorities to reimagine public safety that deeply engaged residents. The three priorities are alternative crisis response, investing in violence prevention, and investing in a better, more accountable public safety division.
  • The City of Oakland created their own Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to rapidly develop a recommendation for Council consideration to increase community safety through alternative responses to calls for assistance, and investments in programs that address the root causes of violence and crime (such as health services, housing, jobs, etc.).

Violence Reduction and Prevention Strategies

  • Several cities, including Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland, have established or expanded their respective Offices of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery and Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. These offices prioritize holistic approaches to addressing community trauma, violence prevention and reduction.
  • In Washington D.C. Cure the Streets (CTS) is a public safety pilot program working to reduce gun violence in the District. CTS uses a data-driven, public-health approach to treat violence as a disease that can be interrupted, treated, and stopped from spreading. Additionally, gun violence was declared a public health crisis by the city.

Accountability  in Law Enforcement & Detention

  • In order to reduce the jail population safely, the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office developed a strategic plan centered on smart decision-making that ensures public safety while minimizing the use of detention.
  • Residents in Philadelphia approved a ballot measure in 2020 calling for the city to create an independent police oversight commission to replace the existing police advisory body. City leaders are moving forward with steps to implement this voter-approved measure.

Health-Driven Solutions

  • The City of Albuquerque created the Community Safety Department, a civilian response force. Community Safety Responders dispatched via 911 call centers may have backgrounds like social work and doing peer-to peer support, or they may be clinicians, counselors, or similar.
  • Early this year, Los Angeles California announced a Therapeutic Transportation Pilot, a city/county collaboration to better respond to calls for law enforcement when managing mental health crises through a civilian responder model.

As the Task Force comes together around recommendations for municipal leadership, many of these examples and themes will guide its work.

NLC is hopeful that this work, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, will guide cities across the country toward equity driven, community-envisioned public safety solutions.

—Kirby Gaherty is Program Manager, Justice Reform & Youth Engagement at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families