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Community Safety: What It Takes

Nothing quite derails a community like violence and crime.

Comprehensive community development is built on the notion that a neighborhood thrives when a number of factors are in place—effective schools, low crime, good jobs, quality affordable housing, healthy residents, local retail, etc.

But it’s hard to improve education when kids are dealing with the trauma of seeing or being targeted by violent acts. It’s hard to attract new residents to a community where danger lurks. It’s hard to keep local stores open on a commercial strip where people are afraid to walk.

Yet too few community developers see public safety as part of their work. Crime is a police issue, the thinking goes, something that is beyond our capacity to change.

LISC’s Community Safety Initiative turns that notion on its head. “At CSI, we’ve always felt that the tools of community development are very powerful to address public safety,” says Julia Ryan, the program director for the initiative.

CSI has a 20-year history of working with community groups on public safety. They’ve helped transform nuisance properties into affordable housing, enlist at-risk youth in crime prevention efforts, reclaim parks to make them safe spaces, turn commercial corridors into vibrant places to shop, and more.

The end results are stronger communities and less crime.

"It’s easy to keep projects in separate silos. But it’s much more powerful if public safety is part of all the work.”

“It’s easy to keep projects in separate silos: Today we work on our economic development project. Tomorrow we work on public safety,” Ryan says. “But it’s much more powerful if public safety is part of all the work.”

Building a comprehensive community initiative typically involves a process that includes key activities—engaging with residents, creating a plan, implementing that blueprint for change, communicating with residents and other stakeholders, leading a coalition of partners, and evaluating the results.

The series of articles by the Institute is designed to help any group involved with LISC’s Building Sustainable Communities or a similar comprehensive initiative to think about how to approach public safety for each of those key activities.

“To really improve, many communities understand they need to show they’re making a difference in crime and public safety,” says Mona Mangat, a senior program officer at CSI. “It can be difficult to know where to begin, but we have worked with great organizations around the country that offer advice and successful models.”

Like their local counterparts highlighted throughout this series, Ryan and Mangat have learned useful lessons in the course of their work around public safety and community development. Here are a few ideas that apply at any part of the process.

Think broadly and think ahead. Ryan says that in every stage—from engaging the community to evaluation—it helps to consider how the work connects to the next step and how it can influence and be influenced by other projects.

“Be very intentional. What is the problem that you’re trying to solve? How can you assess what it is and the impact you can have?” she says. “In the early planning there are probably ten things you can be doing. Pick three that are the most achievable.”

Early action shows movement. Be sure you do more than just hold meetings in the first six months of a public safety initiative. A pop-up coffee shop that operates for a few weeks in a crime hot spot, for example, or an anti-violence event shows supporters and partners that this project will be able to get things done, and it’s an advertisement that a new public safety program has launched in the community.

Widen your involvement with local police officers. Have a policy to include law enforcement representatives in everything from your CDC’s finance committee to the local LISC advisory board. Their perspective on the community and what works to limit crime is unique and invaluable.

“When the issue of safety is being represented at a table where broader discussions about the community are occurring, it changes the conversation dramatically,” says Mangat.

At the same time, help the police understand community development—what it can accomplish, how it works, etc. “Many law enforcement agencies operate with a culture that doesn’t encourage people to look to other cities or other industries for ideas,” Ryan says.

When you can, do a cross-training, so both the police and members of community groups are in the room, building relationships and learning the same ideas.

Be prepared for some rough spots. “When things go wrong with public safety, they often go wrong so spectacularly—a high-profile crime, an awful act of violence—that there’s a lot of finger pointing and blame,” Ryan points out. “When emotions are high, you have to address that.”

Know the power of “collective efficacy.” Academics who study how communities work have a term for the social cohesion among neighbors and their willingness to intervene in a situation: collective efficacy.

“Poverty and a lack of hope are the biggest hurdles for improving public safety in a lot of places,” Ryan says.

“When the community is really struggling, when crime has become a part of life, there are no expectations things can get better. They absolutely can, and to make that happen, the work includes building trust and relationships and connections.”


In one Milwaukee neighborhood, the first stage in improving community safety has been taking the time to build the power of community.

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A wide variety of stakeholders in Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills neighborhood provided data and information to create a plan that is making the business district a safer place.

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Crime is down and abandoned buildings are being rehabbed in Dudley Square in Boston, thanks to close attention to the details of a public safety campaign.

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By telling their story often and well, community developers working on public safety in Providence have been able to build on their success.

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A Los Angeles CDC has increased the power of its public safety work by creating partnerships with police and like-minded agencies.

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A community group’s comprehensive approach to stopping crime makes a difference in West Philadelphia. They know because they’ve measured the impact.

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