Community Safety Agenda: Public Safety Needs a Public Health Approach

By Tierra Bradford

Last month, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as part of a coalition of nearly 70 civil rights and justice organizations, sent a letter to the leadership of the 118th Congress urging them to advance a Community Safety Legislative Agenda. This agenda calls for the investment in historically underfunded programs that reduce crime and help make communities safer, and it is central to our movement for changing the way our government approaches public safety.

When people think of public safety, their first thoughts often revolve around punishment. Law enforcement and incarceration have been the main staples of public safety since the 1800s. Our country’s obsession with policing and incarceration has led to a four-decade rise in mass incarceration. And the truth is that we rely on a system that doesn’t really work: Incarceration has very little impact on reducing crime, but it has significant costs — and research actually shows that factors outside of incarceration are better for public safety. If we are serious about public safety, then we have to invest in policies that keep people from entering or returning to the criminal-legal system. It’s time that we expand our thinking when it comes to improving public safety.

Because of our commitment to finding solutions that are shown to significantly improve public safety, The Leadership Conference is part of the community safety working group, a joint project of more than 50 civil rights, public health, racial justice, housing, violence prevention, economic justice, and allied organizations nationwide dedicated to building safety that works for all communities. The goal of this group is to advance new policies that invest in people and communities to keep everyone safe. This working group essentially takes a public health approach to community safety by addressing the economic, social, and environmental conditions that lead to violence in the first place. We know that by addressing these issues head on we can prevent violence in our communities — because prevention is the most effective way to keep people healthy and safe.

One of the ways this group is working to push proactive solutions for public safety is by proposing a set of legislative priorities that lawmakers should embrace to advance community safety across the fields of health and prevention programs, housing and economic security, and youth, families, and community spaces. This community safety agenda addresses issues outside of the confines of policing and incarceration by uplifting existing legislation and policy solutions that address genuine safety issues.

With a proactive public health approach, there may be concern about how we can address violence when it occurs in our communities. The community safety agenda includes three bills that directly address community health and preventative public safety and that would enact evidence-based methods like violence intervention, non-carceral crisis response, access to voluntary care, peer counseling, non-carceral approaches to traffic safety, and improvements to our public health workforce. For example, the People’s Response Act would create a new “Division on Community Safety” within the Department of Health and Human Services, which would treat safety as a public health issue by funding evidence-informed interventions that advance safety outside of policing structures and bolster preventative, non-carceral safety programming. Similarly, the Break the Cycle of Violence Act would create an office to support community violence intervention workforce development and fund community violence intervention programs. The Mental Health Justice Act would support governments and community-based organizations operating fully non-carceral programs that train and dispatch mental health professionals responding during mental health and related crises. All of these bills invest in violence prevention that make our communities safer and stronger.

Public safety isn’t just about some people being safe. Everyone deserves to be safe regardless of who they are or where they live, but this isn’t always the case — especially for communities of color and other vulnerable communities. The current system of policing and criminalization disproportionately targets Black and Brown communities and harms people with disabilities. Additionally, the current system contributes to a cycle of violence in our communities. It’s past time that we have systems in place that don’t harm entire communities in the name of public safety. A majority of voters agree that real safety requires preventing violence and harm in the first place, not just reacting after something happens. The safest places in the country don’t have more police, more jails, more prisons, and harsher sentences. They have access to jobs, good schools, housing, and health care.

To ensure all people can feel safe and be safe, the nation must turn to evidence-based strategies that lead to actual safety and genuine accountability.

Tierra Bradford is the senior manager of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.