Police and fire rescuers aren't the be all, end all of safety

Police and fire rescuers aren't the be all, end all of safety
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Americans across the country are finally having a long overdue discussion about public safety. While most of the discussion has rightfully focused on the ways systemic racism in policing and public policy kill Black and Brown Americans and damage families and communities, we think it’s time to focus on how and why we fund public safety. Specifically, we’d like cities to examine options for investment in public safety that actually keep Americans safe.  

As the country faces our biggest economic crisis, a pandemic that may last for years and an overdue reckoning with centuries of systemic racism, it’s time for cities to examine the investment and impact of every budget dollar. It’s time for an unconventional idea: investing in our public spaces to improve public safety.  

Public safety is usually defined as police and fire rescuers, and their services are vitally important. Yet there’s abundant evidence that non-traditional investments also reduce crime and improve people’s wellbeing; these investments can create public safety and save local governments money at the same time. 

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As a whole, the United States currently spends $100 billion on policing every year, and funding for police departments is a vast chunk of local government spending — between 20 to 45 percent of discretionary funds in a city’s yearly budget. All this spending has not resulted in less crime: A study of police spending over the past 60 years revealed no correlation between increasing police budgets and less violent crime.

We do not blame the many great police officers across the country for this. We have asked police officers and fire-fighters to prevent crime and perform multiple other jobs for which they were never trained — from mental and physical health providers, to drug treatment counselors, social workers and more. 

The reality is our ever-increasing public safety budgets were difficult to manage before, during moderate economic downturns, and now, during the depression-like economic collapse, they are difficult to sustain. When public safety budgets continually increase as tax revenue falls, local governments cut core services, which impacts people’s health, wellbeing and safety. 

Investing in parks, libraries and trails to make communities safer may sound like an unusual public safety strategy, but it’s backed up by ample research that proves investments in parks, open spaces and trails reduce crime, expand economic opportunity and boost wellbeing. Consider the revitalization of Philadelphia’s Hunting Park, where crime went down 89 percent nearby over three years following park improvements. Investments in more parks and greenspace in New York City reduced felonies in surrounding neighborhoods by an average of 213 a year. And a growing body of research demonstrates the other benefits of access to nature: reduced anxiety and stress, reduced aggression, increased social connectedness and improved physical health.

This holds true for smaller cities as well as big ones. For example, if the city of Akron, Ohio, where one of us serves as deputy mayor, reallocated just one percent of its public safety budget to public space, it would net an additional $800,000 every year for parks and community centers. For Akron, this sum is big enough to make a real difference — it represents a 16 percent increase in the current parks and recreation capital budget. It would also deliver multiple additional benefits to the community: improved physical and mental health, more social capital and of course, a safer community. When people spend time in nature, their health improves, but it turns out that the benefits of nature can be accrued from a short walk in the park or along a local nature trail. When we design and operate our parks in ways that are welcoming to everyone, the connections people make with each other reduce social isolation and build trust — and that’s good for neighborhoods, cities and communities. 

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How should local governments address public safety through public spaces? First, ensure that all residents have access to high quality public spaces, regardless of where they live. Second, show residents you care for their wellbeing in public spaces through regular upkeep and maintenance. Third, make these spaces welcoming by having staff and volunteers greet visitors, answer questions and promote health and safety, as the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department is doing during the pandemic.

Last, ensure that every public space we invest in is anchored in equitable, inclusive and anti-racist practices and policies that keep these spaces safe, healthy, tranquil and fun for all residents. While we understand that states and cities face daunting financial situations due to COVID-19, we see a couple clear ways to help pay for these investments. Congress can designate parks, libraries, trails and other public spaces as “critical civic infrastructure” as part of a larger infrastructure bill in the near future, while local governments can reallocate some of their police and fire departments’ budgets into public spaces as public safety.

All of us want public safety, but we must broaden our definition of what brings us security and solace to include the places and spaces that connect us to each other and increase trust. Yes, we need to address police brutality, racism, income inequality and distrust in America — and let’s use all the options at our disposal to do it. It’s time to reallocate public safety resources for our parks, our community centers, our trails — all of the vital civic infrastructure that rebuilds the fabric of society. Our residents need truly safe communities. We cannot afford to fail them.

Tonnetta Graham is the president of Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation. James Hardy is the deputy mayor of Akron, Ohio. Maura McCarthy is the executive director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy.