Engaging Leaders Voices: New Visions of Public Safety

September 18, 2020 - (4 min read)

By Clarence Anthony

The last few months have been challenging in many ways. From the devastating impact of COVID to wildfires, hurricanes, and social uprisings.

Since the murder of George Floyd, more than 2,000 cities have erupted in protests and uprisings to draw attention to the brutal killings of Black individuals at the hands of police. The vivid images of the shooting of Jacob Blake, the killing of Breonna Taylor and most recently revelations related to the death of Daniel Prude has amplified the historical distrust between Black, Indigenous and communities of color and law enforcement.

The uprisings have also pulled back the curtain on the racist policies and procedures that undergird so many of our government institutions. However, it has also offered an opportunity for local leaders to reimagine and respond to calls for new visions of public safety.

Local leaders should be at the forefront of conversations, helping to create equitable, innovative, and improved systems that address the often-thwarted history of law enforcement in our country.

Here at the National League of Cities (NLC), we know the importance of peer learning, helping local leaders address these types of challenges and equipping them and their staff with resources critical to implementing change.

Recently, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, NLC kicked off a series on this issue with the National Forum on Re-Imagining Public Safety. In this closed session, four-city leaders served as panelists and detailed their local plans to rethink what it means to keep their residents safe. As the moderator, I was pleased to facilitate a conversation between the panelists before an audience of more than 200 attendees in an open, safe, and passionate atmosphere.

Four leaders- Mayors Ras Baraka of Newark, NJ, Andy Berke of Chattanooga, TN, Tim Keller of Albuquerque, NM and Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham of Minneapolis, MN – shared how they are engaging with their respective communities and taking steps toward equity within their local systems.

Four key takeaways–

  • Newark has reallocated a percentage of their police budget to create an office of violence prevention. While in the works for some time, recent uprisings provided a catalyst for this to move forward. Mayor Baraka emphasized that more police on the street does not mean less crime nor a feeling of safety and that their city is rethinking public safety with a community lens.
  • Chattanooga has decided to be open and honest about arrest data, including the racial disparities, in hopes to move toward a more trusting relationship with residents around policing. Mayor Berke also shared the need to address systemic racism across all city departments in order to truly work toward lasting change.
  • Albuquerque is creating a new department of unarmed responders, to right-size the role of police in the city. Mayor Keller sees the need to utilize restorative justice practices in their public safety work and as a minority-majority city, the need to engage residents is key.
  • Minneapolis is at the center of the conversation around public safety and is looking beyond simply reforming policing but rather seeking a holistic vision of public safety inclusive of prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry services. Councilmember Cunningham highlighted the need to move beyond “reform” and toward a true re-imagining of the system.

Throughout the 90-minute forum, attendees and our panelists discussed several key elements to consider when engaging in conversation around law enforcement and the broader public safety work in cities across the county. Among these elements are accountability, community engagement, equity, and the reconciliation of past injustices. I was really struck by the candid nature of the conversation and the strong, tangible plans that each leader presented. Given this was a safe space, an openness existed in sharing both struggles and successes and I am eager to continue this series through additional blogs, more forums/discussions, related content at City Summit and publications from our team.

To close, I will share what I deemed to be a strong and hopeful thought from Laurie Garduque (Director of Criminal Justice with the MacArthur Foundation) – it is possible to turn a system on its head if there is a spirit of collaboration and cooperation among all actors and stakeholders and a clear inclusion of the community and impacted voices.


About the Author:

Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.