Mayors must lead in reimagining public safety
© JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

With cities seeing a spike in violence in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, some elected officials are advancing knee-jerk solutions like investing more in policing, putting more people in jail, or even bringing in federal troops.

But the truth is, we won’t improve public safety by holding on to the failed, get-tough policies of the past. In this moment of national reckoning on race, leaders – and particularly mayors and other local officials —must reimagine public safety in America’s cities. Now is the time to work with Black communities to replace hopelessness with opportunity for the Black men and boys who are disproportionately affected by violence and systemic racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacting a heavy toll on Black communities across the country. Millions of Americans are newly unemployed, including disproportionate numbers of Black folks. Millions are struggling to hold onto their homes and put food on the table. Adding to these stresses is the ongoing trauma of state violence that has taken the lives of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd, as well as the confrontational police response to nationwide protests in defense of Black lives. Tactics like the ones we’ve seen federal agents carry out in Portland don’t make communities safer; they exacerbate the risk of violence.

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The far better approach is to seek ways to prevent violence in the first place. That requires taking bold steps to shift resources from policing and incarceration toward the solutions we know can create real and lasting public safety. We need to support communities to address the root causes of violence by building pathways to justice, employment, education and opportunity in cities across the nation. It’s the most common-sense, cost-effective approach for advancing public safety, and it’s an approach that works.

We know this because we’ve seen it work in many of our partner cities. One being Milwaukee, which in January of this year reported consistent year-over-year declines in homicide rates since 2015. One reason officials cited for this progress was the Blueprint for Peace, a comprehensive, community-driven plan for reducing violence through investments in everything from afterschool programs to mental health resources and cultural activities. As part of the plan, a campaign led by the African American Roundtable in the city successfully advocated for steering $900 million from the police department budget to youth employment, affordable quality housing, and violence prevention efforts that do not involve law enforcement.

Similar blueprints have been undertaken in cities from New Orleans (NOLA for Life) and Houston (Houston Peace) to Louisville (Blueprint for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods). The common theme across these efforts is that they embrace a range of strategies for supporting communities to interrupt, prevent and heal from violence. It’s referred to as a “public health” approach to violence prevention, and it puts communities in the lead in addressing the structural barriers to opportunity for Black men in our cities.

In this moment and beyond, it is time to double down on approaches to reducing violence that we know will work over the long term. As more and more cities announce budget cuts in response to the massive deficits brought on by the pandemic, there is a distinct possibility that public health approaches will be squeezed even more. But we cannot let that happen. Rather than cutting programs that save lives, we should listen to the demands of people across the country who are calling on governments to divert dollars from the current public safety structures and invest in proven solutions to keep communities safe, healthy and hopeful.

America’s cities and mayors are at a crossroads. Will we keep investing in the broken systems that are harming Black and Brown communities? Or will we invest instead in what really works to help people and communities be safe and thrive? With courageous leadership and public will, we can seize this moment to reimagine public safety.

Anthony Smith is the executive director at Cities United, a national network of 130 mayors committed to creating safe, healthy and hopeful communities for young Black men and boys, and their families.