In summary

This “public health approach” to creating community safety works, but safety efforts like these have been underfunded and short-lived.

By Lisa Fujie Parks, Special to CalMatters

Lisa Fujie Parks as an associate program director at Prevention Institute in Oakland, lisa@preventioninstitute.org. She worked with the cities of Milwaukee, Baltimore and Kansas City on citywide violence prevention plans. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Throughout California, protesters are calling for divesting from police and investing in policies that create true community safety. 

The evidence backs them up. We’ve worked with cities throughout the country that have developed comprehensive community safety plans in partnership with residents, nonprofit organizations and city agencies to prevent violence before it ever gets to the point of police intervention.

This “public health approach” to creating community safety works. It has reduced gun violence and improved community safety in Milwaukee, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Louisville and other cities. But, up until now, community safety efforts like these have been underfunded and short-lived.

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Most cities have directed their limited resources to law enforcement, jails and other parts of the criminal justice system. That means that even when cities have taken a public health approach, it’s existed in the shadows of an enormous amount of police activity instead of changing and reducing the police department’s role.

That could change now if cities in California embrace community members’ urgent appeals to shift resources away from police and toward an approach to public safety that’s been gaining steam for more than 15 years.

A public health approach:

  • Acknowledges racism and other forms of discrimination. Crucially important to this approach is an acknowledgement that the current situation – in which communities of color face concentrated policing, fewer opportunities and deteriorated community conditions – wasn’t just happenstance. Nor was it the fault of community members themselves. These conditions were created by policies and practices that intentionally marginalized people of color and poor people into neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.
  • Examines community conditions. Our surroundings shape our experiences and behaviors, so successful community safety plans cultivate safety in streets, parks, jobs, schools and elsewhere. This can be achieved through equitable investment and fair lending, affordable housing and anti-displacement policies, living wage employment opportunities, as well as youth mentorship, employment, safe parks, greening vacant lots and reducing alcohol outlet density. Now is not the time to cut funding for youth employment opportunities and recreational activities. These programs have been proven to be successful and should be funded throughout the state.
  • Is collaborative. It brings together community members with people who represent health care, schools, parks, housing, social services, foundations, nonprofits and others. Everyone comes to the table as equals. The local public health department can coordinate the work.
  • Puts community members in the lead. Too often the people who are most impacted by violence are excluded from decisions about how to prevent and address it. But these are the very people who should have a seat at the head of the table during conversations and decision-making about safety initiatives. They should also have a key role in carrying out the decisions that are made. Hiring community members as “violence interrupters” is another evidence-based strategy for improving community safety.
  • Follows the data. It looks at who is most affected by community violence, what’s contributing and what’s working to create safety. When strategies are being developed, they are designed specifically to influence the conditions that are increasing the risk of violence and to support community resilience, according to the data.
  • Provides a space for truth-telling and healing from community trauma. Healing as a community is essential to successful community safety efforts. Cities should immediately create spaces for truth-telling, deep listening and caring connection. The establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address racial injustice is another immediate step that could begin to heal fractures in trust that are generations in the making and build support for pathways forward.

Cities can show that they understand the significance of this moment by immediately revising their budgets. With California cities spending up to 50% of their budgets on law enforcement, there is certainly money that could be shifted to invest in schools, jobs, parks and healing that will truly make our communities safe.

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Lisa Fujie Parks as an associate program director at Prevention Institute in Oakland, lisa@preventioninstitute.org. She worked with the cities of Milwaukee, Baltimore and Kansas City on citywide violence prevention plans. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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