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Local Community Safety Efforts Bring Both Challenge and Inspiration

In our previous blog post, we talked about the critical role of safety programs in the effort to make communities safer and better places to live. So how does that work really happen? LISC’s Community Safety Initiative (CSI) has been assisting community groups and police to do this work since 1994.

Young Kansas City residents put the finishing touches on their murals for KC Urban Canvas, a blight mitigation project.

Through our recent experience as the national technical assistance provider in the U.S. Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) Program, we have identified several themes that are common to successful place-based crime prevention: (1) judiciously using research and data; (2) working with partners that bring a broad set of resources to bear on problems, (3) authentically engaging community members and (4) connecting crime reduction to broader revitalization efforts. These core best practices shape CSI’s support to safety partnerships in more than 60 cities nationwide.

In each of these areas, neighborhood-focused partnerships tend to grapple with similar questions. LISC’s technical assistance is focused on helping partners find the solutions that work best for their communities. This article discusses some of the common questions and challenges—and some examples of how community partnerships have addressed them.

Using research and data
Most people agree that using evidence and data to guide program decision-making is a good idea. But how do you do that efficiently and effectively when the decision-makers come from diverse professional backgrounds, have varying levels of comfort with the language and mechanics of data analysis, and may have incentives to pursue approaches that aren’t consistent with research findings? How can we help community members – who are volunteering their time to participate in a process of bettering their neighborhood – to trust, understand and use data and research? What about data availability, sharing and quality problems? Many places struggle to get the data they need to explain what is happening and to use it effectively.

Police and residents mingle at a community clean-up and block party in Rockdale County, GA

In Newark, BCJI grantee Urban League of Essex County is working closely with researchers at Rutgers University Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies. The Rutgers researchers sought resident input in focus groups during the BCJI planning process. In one set of sessions, residents worked with maps to indicate where they felt safe and unsafe in the neighborhood. The data from those sessions helped drive the BCJI team to prioritize addressing crime around alcohol outlets (liquor stores and bars) in the neighborhood, because those correlated both with high incidence of certain types of crime and with places where residents felt most unsafe.

The Rutgers research team also involved local youth in the planning process in order to foster a sense of ownership over the data that would eventually be used in decision-making. Researchers sought young people’s input on the survey questions that would be used to gauge residents’ perceptions of police and of safety in the neighborhood. The young people were able to assist the researchers to shape their survey so that the questions would resonate with residents of their neighborhood. At the same time, the young participants learned about data gathering and research methods.

Working with Diverse Partners
“Partnerships” is a popular buzzword. But friendly talk and joint action are very different things. How do we help people in different sectors (law enforcement and community development, for example) understand enough about one another’s work to have a conversation about leveraging the unique resources each group brings? How should they identify problems that have enough substance for productive collaborative attention, but that can actually be solved? How formal should partnerships be to make sure they get something done? How do you sustain partnerships that were built on individual relationships once the original participants move on?

In Flint, Michigan, the members of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition (UACC) knew that forming a functional partnership was about more than just bringing people together. They worked for more than two years to form a cross-sector partnership that brought the right people to table, including members of law enforcement, community members, economic development and health agencies and other stakeholders with both the passion and the capacity to address the neighborhood’s needs. UACC worked hard to formalize the partnership and set some ground rules for how it would operate, such as clarifying how decisions will be made and how members will share ideas and resources. In 2014, the strength of the partnership was recognized with a BCJI grant.

Housing under renovation in Philadelphia's Mantua Promise Zone complements BCJI safety efforts in the same area.

In some areas, BCJI grantees are layering their partnerships with other efforts that require partnerships. In Philadelphia, for example, the BCJI and Promise Zone Public Safety Committees have been combined, operating as one working group focused primarily in the Mantua neighborhood. This offers an opportunity to sustain the BCJI work in Mantua as grant term nears its end, with the Promise Zone partnerships and leadership sustaining the strategies and collaborative approach.

Authentically engaging community members
Nearly every initiative worth attention focuses on “community engagement” at some level, because most leaders know that successful changes happen when people feel ownership for the process and results. But the barriers—disillusionment, time constraints, distrust—can be significant. What are the best ways to connect people to each other (their neighbors), to credible groups and institutions that can bring structure and resources, and to a narrative of hope and opportunity for their neighborhoods?

In Rockdale County, Georgia, county officials are leading the BCJI effort. But they knew that it would be invaluable to have someone from the target community on the planning committee to ensure that resident voices are heard and people in the neighborhood have someone they can trust as a “go to” for information and feedback. TheCommunity Resource Coordinator has done just that – in addition to organizing cleanups, a block party, and organizing focus groups and youth events so local people are part of the data collection.

A young artist's mural with a message in Kansas City.

Young artists in Kansas City, Missouri helped bring vibrancy to the KC No Violence Alliance initiative to reduce blight along the Prospect Corridor. Drawing on their own experiences and neighborhood history, local youth worked with adult mentors to create plywood murals that were used to board up vacant houses. The project layered crime abatement efforts with positive social and artistic expression to create a sense of space unique to the neighborhood and its residents.

Connecting crime reduction to revitalization
We know that community challenges are interconnected – poverty, unemployment, failing schools and unsafe streets all influence and are influenced by one another. We also know that the tools of “revitalization” such as business attraction and rehabilitation of problem properties can neutralize crime hot spots and create anchors for safety. Likewise, safer streets are better positioned for investment from homeowners, businesses and responsible developers. Taking advantage of these connections requires that community developers share their playbooks with police and other actors in the justice system, early and often. It also requires that police and other justice system leaders be willing to change how they do business—which officers/operations they deploy when and where—to support community development milestones. How do we make sure this happens when everyone is so busy, and so accustomed to operating in silos?

East End Community Services Corporation in Dayton, Ohio has used BCJI data and technical assistance to connect its crime reduction strategy with its economic development strategy, homing in on hotspots along the neighborhood commercial corridor. Recognizing the link between crime issues and economic development challenges, LISC helped East End bring in a consultant to advise on an economic development strategy that makes sense for their neighborhood.

A safer Riverside Park in Providence.

Frank Shea

One of the greatest successes in weaving crime reduction to overall revitalization has taken place in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, RI. Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC) engaged support from the Providence Police Department to reclaim problem properties, with a particular focus on a crime-plagued park and the properties surrounding it. With advice and support from their police partners, OHC cleaned up the park and acquired and renovated many of the problem properties on the surrounding blocks into new affordable rental and homeownership opportunities. In the ensuing years, the park served as well-used community space, attractive homes replaced blighted influences and calls for police service in the area dropped 85 percent, a testament to the power of partnership.

Posted in Community Safety

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