Cities Need a Fresh Approach to Public Safety: Report

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New York skyline. Photo by Vince Costanzo via Flickr

It’s time for municipalities to try a different approach to public safety, by moving away from a focus on law enforcement to greater investment in community services, says a recent report released by the Square One Project.

The report focused on setting a blueprint for New York City as it heads into a fiercely contested mayoral race, but the authors said their proposals were applicable to other U.S. cities grappling with the aftermath of a summer of protests over police misconduct and the financial blows caused by the pandemic.

“We have only ever tried one response to stopping crime and violence —  and that’s through law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” wrote Patrick Sharkey, co-author of the report, entitled Social Fabric: A New Model for Public Safety and Vital Neighborhoods.

 “We need to move away from responding with punishment and instead respond with investments, and there couldn’t be a better time to do that than right now.”

Sharkey, a Princeton University sociologist, wrote the report with Elizabeth Glazer, former director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and one of the architects behind the push to close the Rikers Island Prison Complex.

They described the report, released this month, as “an ambitious blueprint for radically reimagining public safety.”

New York, one of the early hot spots in the pandemic, is still reeling from the financial aftershocks of the lockdown, as a crowded field of mayoral candidates jostle to replace Mayor Bill De Blasio.

According to the authors, the city has a unique opportunity to “re-orient our approach to achieve safety” through proposals oriented to giving the community a greater role in public safety.

Among their proposals is the creation of the office of a deputy mayor who can “mobilize the city’s civic and public safety resources towards a common and measurable goal of increasing well-being; and work in partnership with a well-funded community-led safety effort.”

The Deputy Mayor would be the linchpin of a different model of public safety that doesn’t rely on the police alone.

“As a nation, we have gotten used to defaulting to police and the justice system to respond to crime. As last summer’s protests crystallized, however, it has come at a high human and fiscal cost,” said Glazer in a statement accompanying the report.

“A long history of theory and practice shows another model for durable safety, starting with access to civic resources and opportunity: leafy streets, well-maintained parks, decent housing and jobs, superior education and health care.”

The authors described the “social fabric” model’s goal as a “thriving city that bends all civic resources towards attaining it, led by community expertise and aspirations. In this model, police and the justice system play a role, as another civic service in a heterogeneous strategy, but an ever-decreasing role, as the lives of residents improve. The pieces are in place. All we need is the will to execute.”

Glazer and Sharkey said New York City already had some of the elements in place to create the new public safety model.

“All we need is the will to execute,” they said.

A crucial element is re-focusing the budget of the police department.

Noting that spending on criminal justice agencies had increased by over 17 percent over the past seven years, even as arrest and incarceration rates have dropped by over half in the same period, they said there was lots of room for a more cost-effective policy that concentrates on “effective approaches to stop people from engaging in criminal activity in the first place.”

The authors note that a “Deputy Mayor” position, along with a developed neighborhood cabinet is not a novel idea, citing the current NYC NeighborhoodStat program that empowers residents of high-crime public housing developments to work directly with city leaders to address concerns about the social, economic, and environmental conditions connected to high crime.

They suggested funding a local demonstration program to act as a new coalition, composed of residents and local organizations, supported by government services, that becomes the primary institution responsible for public safety and community wellbeing.

The authors note that over time this could help shift law enforcement out of currently over-policed neighborhoods.

“If there are fewer warriors on the street, we need to invest in more guardians,” the authors conclude.

“The evidence available suggests that community organizations and residents can play this role, but we’ve never given them the chance.”

Elizabeth Glazer is a Former Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Bill de Blasio. Glazer oversees citywide criminal justice policy, and develops and implements strategies to enhance public safety, reduce unnecessary incarceration, and increase fairness.

Patrick Sharkey, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s School of Public and international Affairs. Sharkey was formerly Chair of Sociology at New York University, served as Scientific Director at Crime Lab, New York, and is the founder of AmericanViolence.org.

The Square One Project at the Columbia Justice Lab aims to “reimagine justice and create a pathway for reckoning in our country.”

The full Square One report can be accessed here. 

 This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

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