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Inequitable Policing is a Barrier to Healthy Communities

By Fay Gibson on May 13th, 2015

On April 12, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man and a native of Baltimore, was arrested for making eye contact with an officer and then running. While in police custody, he suffered a severe spinal cord injury and died a week later. President Obama recently offered his thoughts to the nation in response to Freddie Gray’s death: he acknowledged that “this has been going on for a long time … This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new. The good news is that perhaps there’s some newfound awareness … that there are problems and challenges when it comes to how policing and our laws are applied in certain communities. And we have to pay attention to it.” I could not agree more.

For those of us who work to create healthier communities and advocate for improvements to the built environment, we have to pay attention when, according to Baltimore’s police commissioner, running in a high-crime area warrants arrest. Safety and community design are inextricably tied, and one goal for healthy community design is to create more sidewalks and greenways to shield pedestrians from traffic. However, improved spaces for walking and running are rendered useless if a community is afraid that the mere act of running could result in arrest.

Freddie Gray’s death clearly demonstrates the fact that policing matters when it comes to whether residents in a neighborhood can freely—and safely—access their homes, schools, supermarkets, green spaces and jobs. All over the country, there are significant disparities in policing practices, and those disparities inhibit equitable community building. Strategies to address this issue must be baked into any model for community-led change.

For example, we can seek to create opportunities in schools and communities for positive interactions with police outside the context of law enforcement; we can build partnerships with community members to develop policies and strategies in neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by crime; and we can work with neighborhood residents to encourage the adoption of policies and programs that address the needs of children and youth most at risk for experiences with crime and violence.

In order for existing programs and policies like Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets and Shared Use to be effective, the community and the police have to work hand in hand. Without the perception of trust and equal protection under the law, it will be difficult to advocate for improvements to the built environment and even more difficult to ensure the health of community members. As former Attorney General Holder stated in his remarks on the Justice Department’s 21st Century Policing Task Force’s interim report, “we must work to achieve the shared values and the common desire for peace, for security, and for public safety that binds us together.”

Fay Gibson

Active Living By Design Alumna

Former Senior Project Officer at Active Living By Design, old-school community organizer and advocate for social justice and equity for all.