My life’s work has focused on helping to build communities that don’t produce crime. I’ve seen a lot along the way: programs that work and programs that don’t. My new book Policy Walking: Lighting Paths to Safer Communities, Stronger Families & Thriving Youth, highlights the approaches that are working. While the book dives deep, following is a taste of some of the initiatives that have transformed their communities. Notice the common thread…communities heal when all of the policy walkers – and all of the policies – link arms and move forward together.
“Pizza’s being delivered here for the first time in years, and taxis never dared come in here, and now they do.”
– Resident, Shreveport, LA
This comment from a citizen of Allendale, historically one of Shreveport’s poorest and roughest neighborhoods is amplified by Police Chief Willie Shaw’s report of an “astounding 50% drop in calls for service” and Fire Chief Brian Crawford’s comment that, “You have given this dying community new life. What you [Community Renewal] have done here is extraordinary, and it gives us hope for the future.”
Violent crime is not widespread. It is concentrated in specific zip codes throughout the nation – two in one city, one in another, or, the south side, the north side, or “there’s the boundary…” It is not a mystery. These areas are characterized by poverty, poor schools, fragile families, limited access to jobs, easy access to guns and a pervasive aura of mistrust, fear and hopelessness. Trauma and fear are unrelenting. As one resident put it, “We just can’t get out of Vietnam.”
Even in the face of crippling structural issues such as joblessness and the prevalence of guns, hope for community revitalization exists, hope that seems to occur on three levels, each increasing in size and scope.
“Community Renewal” in Shreveport aims to restore the foundation of safe and caring communities by building “Friendship Houses” in low-income, high-crime areas. Neighbors, including teens and volunteers from the entire city build these houses, which serve as a neighborhood resource for after school tutoring and mentoring programs, child care, recreation and community meetings. Crime, education and neighborhood satisfaction statistics attest to Community Renewal’s success.
On a somewhat larger scale, San Bernardino’s former Mayor Morris, appalled by the shooting death of a young girl eating her Thanksgiving dinner, launched “Operation Phoenix.” Morris targeted a 20-square block area where every index of social pathology – child abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, high crime, poor housing and more–existed. Working closely with residents, he operated on three levels: moral (his outrage over shooting deaths), conceptual (involvement in the planning process) and bureaucratic (breaking silos, reconfiguring city services). Ordinances changed; streets lights were repaired and potholes filled; safe routes to school were established; mentoring, tutoring and job training programs were started or enhanced; police worked closely with the community, and the most volatile and dangerous were targeted. Cal State reported stunning qualitative and quantitative results: homicides were cut in half, and the quality of life changed. Comments like, “My kids can play outside safely now…I wanted to move, but now I want to stay,” were common. But bankruptcy hit the city hard, a new government was elected and the Phoenix area reverted to its previous state. Two lessons: dramatic change is possible, but the work must continue and it must be anchored in city policy and practice.
Citywide strategies to reduce crime and violence represent the most comprehensive and largest scope example of safer community initiatives. Begun in 2007 through the California Cities Violence Prevention Network and later through the Department of Justice’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, this strategy is based on the idea that nothing will change unless all civic, governmental, educational and community entities make specific violence prevention commitments along a prevention, intervention, enforcement and re-entry continuum. Citywide efforts with strong governance (oversight/accountability), clear goals and objectives, have produced striking changes: participating agencies have changed how they do business, new, vital partnerships have been established; new players, such as the business communities, have come aboard, violent crime has dropped in some areas, neighborhood quality of life has changed in others, and in some jurisdictions, city council resolutions and new tax measures have anchored the work.
Comprehensive strategies to stop violence and build healthy communities that don’t produce violence represent an extremely hopeful policy shift. But if the oversight is not strong, the institutional commitments weak, the ambitious citywide strategies revert to a collection of unconnected programs – namely, business as usual.
Policy Walking: Lighting Paths to Safer Communities, Stronger Families & Thriving Youth features a blueprint for this comprehensive work (see the special section on page 128.)