Another piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle in place

Last week, the Attorney General appointed Ronald Davis, Chief of Police for East Palo Alto, California, to lead the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).     As the head of a foundation focused on making our communities safer and healthier, I view this as one more sign that the Department of Justice is serious about ensuring federal dollars are used wisely to reduce crime and strengthen our communities. 

The Attorney General also spoke at length last week about sentencing reforms and other ways to safely reduce our nation’s skyrocketing prison population.  With the nation’s prison population increasing 800 percent since 1990 and 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget committed to federal prison costs, it’s clearly time to try something new.  That’s why it’s refreshing to see bipartisan support growing in Washington for criminal justice reforms – from implementing sentencing reforms for non-violent offenders to reauthorizing the Second Chance Act to ensure those re-entering the workforce and their communities have a real chance at success. 

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And that’s why Chief Davis will be a welcome addition to Washington, D.C.   He knows how to reduce crime rates in tough circumstances – he reduced the homicide rate in East Palo Alto by 50 percent during his tenure – in a place that was the “murder capital” of the U.S. in the mid 1990s.  How did he do it?  Well, he used prevention-oriented services, recognizing early on that the more teens and young people he can keep away from trouble, the more money, and lives, he’d save.  And he’s developed some intriguing partnerships with community groups and the State of California.

Chief Davis knows that a public health approach to policing is smart.  Over the past few years, Chief Davis partnered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the state Department of Transportation to implement a pilot reentry program that provided programming, job training and enforcement services.   The East Palo Alto Police Department was the first police agency in the state to operate a state-funded reentry program.   As a result of this smart on crime approach, recidivism rates dropped from over 60% to under 20% during this program’s tenure.   And that’s real savings for the state of California.   I am confident he’ll build similar partnerships and bring his “smart on crime” approach to the federal level too. 

Chief Davis uses data to pinpoint problems and tailor solutions.  He used Shotspotter sensors to prevent problems rather than simply solve crimes after the fact.  By looking at shots-fired patterns, he identified two public parks that were also gun violence “hot spots”.  He deployed his limited officers to work with community groups to re-legitimize the space.  Officers and community members started walking, biking, and zumba’ing their way through the parks, thus baking in sorely needed physical activity into newly safe spaces.  Crime has dropped.

It is good news for the country that Chief Davis will head up the COPS Office.  I am confident he will continue to encourage greater use of public health evidence-based strategies and partnerships to make towns and communities across the U.S. safer – and save taxpayer dollars.

Ross serves as president and CEO of The California Endowment, a health foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians.