City Leadership and Local Transformation: Reimagining Public Safety


  • Mayor Ras Baraka
  • Mayor David Holt
March 8, 2021 - (5 min read)

Community safety and prosperity are the two highest priorities we have as locally elected officials. But it is impossible to achieve the latter without the former. If our residents do not feel safe, if our law enforcement officers are not trusted, then no level of government intervention will advance the economic and quality of life goals that we seek to achieve.

In the last year, we witnessed historic unrest in American cities stemming partly from justified concerns about the senseless deaths of black residents while engaging with law enforcement. We believe that city leaders have an obligation to hear these concerns and to act on them. We further believe that any function of government can be improved, and that includes the delivery of public safety. The trauma and pain experienced by residents due to systemic disinvestment in communities specifically in black and brown communities, must be addressed holistically and through transformations that start at the local level. This demands a hard look at each community’s vision for public safety, accountability, and the opportunity for residents to not only to be consulted about desired outcomes but also to fully own the process of reimagining public safety.

While we know there is a lot of work ahead to meet these challenges, local leaders across the country are taking steps towards innovation in public safety. They are in fact, re-imagining the design, structure, standards, and effectiveness of public safety for their communities. Innovations will vary based on city need and community input. Each of us must do what is best for our residents, and we must follow their lead. Some of the more promising practices and policies underway are outlined below and are under consideration by the newly formed Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force at the National League of Cities.

Listening to and Uplifting the Voices of Residents

  • At the center of national attention, Minneapolis has been looking to community-centered approaches to re-imagining public safety through the work of their City Council.
  • In July 2020, the City of Columbus adopted a set of legislative priorities to reimagining public safety that deeply engaged residents. The three priorities are alternative crisis response, investing in violence prevention, and investing in a better, more accountable division.
  • The City of Oakland created their own Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to rapidly develop a recommendation for Council consideration to increase community safety through alternative responses to calls for assistance, and investments in programs that address the root causes of violence and crime (such as health services, housing, jobs, etc.).

Focusing on Violence Prevention

  • Several cities, including Newark, NJ and Baltimore, MD, have established or expanded their respective Offices of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery and Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. These offices prioritize holistic approaches to addressing community trauma, violence prevention and reduction.
  • Since 2007, Safe Streets Baltimore has worked to prevent violence and change community norms in Baltimore City. In ten community sites, Violence Interrupters canvass the neighborhood daily and build relationships with high-risk youth and young adults to mediate conflicts and connect residents to resources.
  • In Washington D.C. Cure the Streets (CTS) is a public safety pilot program working to reduce gun violence in the District. CTS uses a data-driven, public-health approach to treat violence as a disease that can be interrupted, treated, and stopped from spreading. Additionally, gun violence was declared a public health crisis by the city.

Ensuring Accountability and Review of Policing

  • To reduce the jail population safely, the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office developed a strategic plan centered on smart decision-making that ensures public safety while minimizing the use of detention.
  • Voters in Akron, Ohio, approved a ballot measure in the last election that requires the police to release video footage from body and dashboard cameras after an officer’s use of force resulting in death or significant injury.
  • Residents in Philadelphia approved a ballot measure in 2020 calling for the city to create an independent police oversight commission to replace the existing police advisory body. City leaders are moving forward with steps to implement this voter-approved measure.

Developing Health-Driven Missions

  • The City of Albuquerque created the Community Safety Department; a civilian response force. Community Safety responders dispatched via 911 call centers may have backgrounds such as social workers, peer to peer support, clinicians, counselors, or similar fields.
  • On June 1st, an alternative emergency response service for mental health, substance use, and other public health emergencies was dispatched for the first time in the City of Denver as part of a pilot program known as Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) that will be run for 6 months in central Denver before its intended expansion to the rest of the city.

As the chairs of the Re-imagining Public Safety Task Force, we look forward to collaborating with our fellow local leaders to create a menu of new and equity-driven public safety recommendations for cities with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

About the Authors

Mayor Ras Baraka

About the Authors

Mayor Ras Baraka is the mayor of Newark, N.J. and serves as co-chair of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Mayor David Holt

Mayor David Holt is the mayor of Oklahoma City, OK. and serves as co-chair of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.