To improve public safety, we must build up communities

A recent summit coincided with release of the National Urban League’s new report that provides a framework for violence prevention and gun reform.

SHARE To improve public safety, we must build up communities
Anti-violence activists, surrounded by children, hold up photos of children killed by gun violence at a rally calling for politicians to invest more resources into South and West Side communities on July 1, 2020.

Anti-violence activists, surrounded by children, hold up photos of children killed by gun violence at a rally calling for politicians to invest more resources into South and West Side communities on July 1, 2020.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As the nation emerged from the economic breakdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising for racial justice triggered by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, law enforcement officials and criminal justice researchers came together to chart a new path toward public safety.

The Safe and Just Communities Summit, a partnership between John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the National Urban League, is an outgrowth of that convening. The summit, held earlier this month at John Jay, brought together policymakers, practitioners, advocates and researchers from around the country, who came together to share programs, strategies and research that support a public safety framework built around communities that are resourced, just, healthy and restored.

It also provided an opportunity for affiliate presidents and CEOs and members of the Urban League to share the work they are doing in their communities to address violence and improve community trust.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, has been proactive in advocating for policy shifts that support new public safety measures, and provides direct services, like its reentry program, to provide additional resources to community members who need it most.

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The summit coincided with the release of the National Urban League’s new report, Towards a New Age of Community Safety. The report, a framework for violence prevention and gun reform, is a compilation of resources and advocacy tools that address the root causes of violence and bring together communities and like-minded partners.

The summit and Urban League report build on the Future of Public Safety, another report from John Jay, which found the following:

• Everyone wants the same thing: to be safe.

• Healthy communities are safer communities. Public resources must be invested in the areas that are most likely to create healthy communities.

• We must decriminalize mental health, homelessness and substance abuse and invest in building an effective network of social services in communities.

• There must be a cultural shift in policing away from thinking of officers as “warriors” and instead as guardians who are there to protect the communities they serve.

I was honored to open the summit in an armchair conversation with U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. He noted that he is working to include several elements of the National Urban League’s 21 Pillars for Redefining Public Safety and Restoring Community Trust, specifically bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants and requiring officers to intervene when excessive force is being used.

He also reiterated his support for another National Urban League priority: a ban on assault weapons. As we noted in our new report, there are at least 4 million assault weapons among the 400 million firearms currently in circulation in the United States, and civilian gun ownership is rising in the U.S.

The flood of guns into U.S. communities in 2020 led to the largest single-year increase in gun homicides on record. Gun violence reports grew by 30% during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with most states experiencing a spike. Community-led violence intervention systems are growing in popularity, from the White House to governors’ offices to municipal governments, because they address the violence at its root and provide alternatives to police response.

When we released our 21 Pillars report in 2021, we highlighted the importance of engaging with communities directly, investing in them, and developing strategies for alternative responses to crisis. The framework outlined in Towards a New Age of Community Safety provides greater context, offering regional comparisons of various community-led movements, programs, and projects.

The comparisons serve as inspiration for collaboration and partnership, no matter where in the country you are.

Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Georgetown University Law Center.

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