Public Safety – A Reflection on the State of the Cities

October 5, 2020 - (5 min read)

This blog post is part of a series of CitiesSpeak posts on reimagining public safety.

Each year, NLC releases a report on the state of America’s cities through analysis of mayoral speeches, inclusive of public safety priorities and trends. While many of the addresses this year predate the national unrest, mounting calls for racial justice and demands to re-imagine public safety, many mayors were already discussing local changes in law enforcement and public safety. Now, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the countless other law enforcement involved shootings of black Americans, examining these priorities is imperative.

Despite the ever-expanding and oversized role of police, American communities have long prioritized investment in public safety infrastructure and personnel to reduce crime and improve safety outcomes. However, from arrests to convictions to incarcerations, the nation’s approach has resulted in racial bias and discrimination, permeating all facets of the criminal justice system. This year, NLC’s State of the Cities report found that 57% of cities have planned to prevent and reduce crimes through increases in police staffing, technology and data, equipment for officers and officer training. For example, in Huntington, W. Va., local leaders invested in an early-warning system within the police department to enable first responders to be more proactive in preventing crime.

Below we evaluate high-level takeaways related to public safety messaging in mayoral priorities over the last three years of the state of the city address data.

This year, mayors addressed public safety innovations – such as the use of body cameras, efforts to improve police misconduct, and increased adoption of community policing tactics – to promote transparency, gain public trust and increase efficiency. While not a new concept, cities also increasingly supported community policing, a policing strategy that promotes collaboration between police officers and residents to proactively address public safety issues. In 2018 and 2019, 28-38% of cities implemented strategies to improve community policing, whereas in 2020, 42% of cities implemented public safety initiatives with the common goal of strengthening community relations with police officers through engagement, education, and outreach.

Many of this year’s reform-based city initiatives stem from an increased national priority on mental health. Local leaders are exploring co-responder models that focus on partnerships between law enforcement and trained health professionals to respond more appropriately to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Through this model, cities can develop responses to crises that not only improve efficiency in addressing behavioral health issues but also reduce the number of arrests, the overuse of jails and unnecessary emergency care.

One example lies in the City of Warsaw, Ind. where data collection and analyzation is being used to create an effective “first-response” protocol for law enforcement and the medical community to coordinate assistance for individuals with acute mental health issues. Additionally, in Buffalo, N.Y., the police department established a Crisis Intervention Team Initiative, in which officers and caseworkers respond to non-emergency calls involving behavioral health issues to effectively address mental health crises.

In 2019-

  • 58% of cities studied expanded police infrastructure and personnel to improve public safety outcomes.
      • Fort Wayne, Ind. increased additional resources, staff and technology in the police department’s homicide unit to address violent crime
  • 45% of mayors addressed reforms to increase public trust, accountability and transparency (the lowest out of the three years)
  • Other related mentions such as body-cameras, police conduct, and transparency landed at 13% which is greatly decreased from 25% the previous year

In 2018-

  • 56% of cities studied and focused on increasing traditional law enforcement funding to update police infrastructure, personnel, and operations to address crime
  • Louisville, Ky. established a federal task force with law enforcement agencies to reduce drug offenses in the community
  • 38% of cities studied and discussed reforms to maximize transparency and accountability within the police department, including the use of body-worn cameras

While traditional approaches to public safety have been deemed effective in lowering crime rates over the decade, an increased police presence also leads to discrimination, implicit and explicit bias, and growing racial disparities within the criminal justice system (the effects of which are on display in national protest). Despite some fluctuation, data collected for the State of the Cities report over the last three years reflects movement toward new and innovative roles for law enforcement and definitions of public safety that are inclusive of resident voices. As can be seen by the creation of co-responder models, the inclusion of credible messengers in work to combat violence, and an increased interest in civilian review and community engagement, many local leaders are looking to make transformative changes within their public safety systems. Mayors can increase accountability, reduce racial bias and discrimination, examine the use of force and include resident voices in decision making as they re-imagine visions of community safety.


Rose Kim is the Program Specialist, Research for Center for City Solutions.



Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.


Anita Yadavalli is the Program Director of City Fiscal Policy at NLC. Anita leads NLC’s Public Sector Retirement initiative, with a focus on research and education for city leaders on retiree healthcare benefits, as well as research and programming on other city fiscal policy issues.