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Three Ways to Build a Safer Community

By Phil Bors on May 20th, 2015

The threat of violence and inequitable policing in low-income communities is nothing new, as Fay Gibson pointed out so well in last week’s blog. Most people living in middle- and-upper-income communities can live without worrying about the real threat of physical violence every day; this is not the case in too many low-income neighborhoods. Black men and boys in particular have good reason to fear the police, so while improving the built environment is necessary, it’s not sufficient for creating better health outcomes.

Yet for healthy community advocates, addressing the many root causes of inequality between neighborhoods seems overwhelming: poverty, inadequate housing, struggling public schools, disinvestment in low-income communities of color, historic and institutional racism, and disproportionate arrests and incarceration of black men.

Considering these sobering trends, what actions can be taken to make communities safer?

  • Build Trust — Non-profits, police and other government agencies can collaborate on approaches to build trust with community members and improve relations outside the context of law enforcement. For example, deputies started the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL) in September of 2004 “to create recreational and educational opportunities for children” living in Alameda County, CA. The DSAL offers an extensive schedule of programs and events that promote health and build trust between officers and young people.
  • Build (and Fix) It Right — City officials, housing advocates and developers must work together with residents on designs that have been proven to increase safety by reducing the opportunity for illegal activity. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) and SafeGrowth are known approaches for engaging residents and collectively addressing public spaces that are trouble spots for violence and illegal activity. The City of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, Canada, has been applying CPTED principles for over 10 years. The city’s Development Plan was amended to add safety as a fundamental value and formalize it as a “principle in building a community with a sustainable quality of life.” Saskatoon has gone even further by developing a design guidebook to help its community become safer.
  • Build Support — Health and community-development funders can invest directly in community-oriented solutions. For example, LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) has been working for decades to improve housing and neighborhood conditions in 30 communities. LISC’s Community Safety Initiative offers resources, strategies and case examples that can apply to any community.

All approaches to improve safety in our communities must rely on building relationships with and learning from residents. Community engagement approaches must give residents, especially youth, chances to voice their concerns and ideas for making their neighborhoods safer. Law enforcement agencies that provide services and quality interactions with young people and low-income residents may reduce the likelihood and severity of police conflicts.

Safety must be a two-way street.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time