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A Natural Connection: The Role of Public Safety in Community Development

Establishing public safety in a community doesn’t have to be something that happens at arm’s length from community development efforts. Across the country, local organizations are working with police to incorporate public safety into the mix of issues addressed in a comprehensive community development initiative. This article shows how these efforts can result in a remarkable drop in crime rates—and a healthier, growing neighborhood.

When community developers and planners talk about public safety, we often use words like “underpinning” and “foundation.” Addressing crime is, in our minds, a necessary precursor to neighborhood revitalization efforts.

In a sense, we are right. It is very difficult to attract businesses, homeowners or other investors to neighborhoods that have significant crime or that are perceived as being unsafe. It can be equally difficult to engage neighbors in visioning a positive future for a community when they are worn down by disorder and blight at every turn or disillusioned by crime control efforts that have failed in the past.

But there is a flaw in the viewpoint that safety has to come before major investment in community development: It positions police and community developers in very traditional roles, implying that police can (and should) create stability through enforcement before we move in to build social capital and economic opportunity.

Decades of experience at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation—and much of the premise behind community policing in general—demonstrates that this traditional way of thinking doesn’t produce results. Instead, those community developers who look at safety as an integrated piece of their neighborhood development plans and pursue relationships with law enforcement accordingly are achieving marked transformations of previously very troubled places.

Linking Community Development to Smart Policing: A Providence Example

The Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island offers a prime example of how this can work. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Providence Police Department (PPD) expended significant resources responding to crime in this diverse, working-class neighborhood. Many problems were centered around blighted properties, vacant lots and an overgrown riverfront area that was both an eyesore and a haven for drug dealing, drug use and prostitution. The police made many arrests but found that they repeatedly returned to the same places to respond to crime. At the same time, Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC) had been developing affordable rental and homeownership properties in the community, but it was difficult to convince families to invest in a neighborhood where they didn’t feel safe.

In 2002, OHC and PPD were central players in a community planning process that shed a spotlight on the neighborhood’s problems with crime and vacancy. As OHC staff worked more closely with police officers, it became clear that bricks and mortar could be some of the strongest crime-fighting tools in the neighborhood. OHC set out to acquire the worst nuisance properties and turn them into high-quality affordable housing. The police backed the organization at every turn, such as by working with representatives of the fire and building inspection departments to explain to negligent owners that they would have to be held accountable or sell.

When the City of Providence made a commitment to rehabilitate the riverfront area into a nine-acre public park, OHC, PPD and a number of other partners teamed up in a LISC-sponsored training to consider how principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)1 could inform the redevelopment process, both in terms of the park’s physical design and programming to promote active use. They emerged with a plan that would make the park an anchor for the neighborhood’s transformation.

Equally important, they reinforced a new framework for policing and community building in Olneyville: Police and community developers would examine problems together, whether it be a spike in crime or a rash of foreclosures. They would consider how their different expertise and resources could contribute to solutions and act accordingly—taking care to strategically time enforcement actions, community engagement efforts and development milestones to be mutually reinforcing.

Years later, beautiful new homes have replaced the worst nuisance properties. The park offers a safe and well-used green space, community garden and bike path that connects the neighborhood to other prosperous parts of the city. Calls for police service dropped more than 85 percent from 2002 to 2007, without notable displacement to nearby areas, and crime has remained low since. The strong working relationships between community developers and police have withstood tests of leadership transition—three different commanders of PPD’s District 5 have worked closely with OHC over the years—and have helped the neighborhood respond rapidly to problems like concentrated foreclosures that threaten its newfound vitality.

The Crime Triangle

The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing is a nonprofit coalition comprised of police practitioners, researchers and universities that provides information about how police can more effectively address crime and disorder problems. The center’s “crime triangle” model offers a helpful theoretical framework for understanding why community-police partnerships can be so transformative. Consider a crime problem as a composition of three elements, each represented by points on a triangle: victim, offender and location. Crime and disorder result when offenders and suitable victims come together in time and space in the absence of capable “guardians.”What does that mean for the community development world?

First, if community developers’ public safety strategy begins and ends with asking police for enforcement assistance, they are addressing only one point on the triangle. Cracking down on offenders through arrests and prosecution deals with a small subset of the conditions that give rise to crime. Second, because community developers command significant resources to change the physical and social environments of neighborhoods—thereby tackling the other two points on the triangle—they are incredibly powerful agents for crime prevention.

As in Olneyville, many community developers and their law enforcement partners have discovered that they can achieve so much more if they deploy their resources strategically to tackle all three elements in the same timeframe and place. Those community developers consider how the timing of enforcement actions can strategically interplay with their other development activities to achieve major results.

Sound familiar? It should. Safety is no different than other aspects of comprehensive community development in its emphasis on leveraging multiple interventions to achieve sustainable change. Yet in many communities it has been relegated to a silo of actors and activity, perhaps because of the historical and cultural segregation of police agencies and many lower-income, minority communities.

What Works: How to Build High-Impact Safety Partnerships

Olneyville is just one of more than 60 case studies about ?successful community developer/police partnerships that are part of LISC’s MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Award publication series, as well as in a recent book produced by the U.S. Department of Justice.3 The field now has many examples of best practices that prove that safety integration can be a very useful and successful tool for community developers. Here are a few:

1. Cops make great community developers; invite their input on community development plans and activities early and often.

Again and again in communities around the country, community developers have found it highly productive to pursue proactive and non-traditional relationships with police. This kind of interaction goes deeper than the more typical relationship, in which parties exchange information about crime problems after they occur. As such, these more robust partnerships do more than respond to crime; they actually create safety, heading off problems before they emerge.

Local officers are in neighborhoods every day, talking to people and observing where crimes do and don’t happen, and that gives them keen instincts about what makes neighborhoods healthy and strong. Community developers can reap significant benefits if they tap that expertise for their decision-making about economic development, organizing strategies and social programs.

In Boston, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation discovered this when they met with local officers in the course of planning for a new mixed-use building near a transit stop. Officers noted that the plan to fill ground-floor commercial space with a laundromat could create an ideal “legitimate loitering” spot in a neighborhood with an active open-air drug dealing problem. The team changed course to consider other retail options that would drive positive social traffic in the area. In the framework of the crime triangle, the development team effectively removed a location where crimes were likely to occur, negating a future need for interventions by creating a new crime-resistant neighborhood resource instead.

Just a few miles away, Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation has also made good use of Boston police officers’ neighborhood knowledge and data. Nuestra invites police to weigh in on which vacant properties it should prioritize for acquisition and rehabilitation as it looks for tipping points that will move a high-foreclosure neighborhood in the right direction. In turn, police and city code enforcement officers focus on the same properties and blocks to help spur the development agenda. These strategies, which focus on the location and offender points on the Crime Triangle, are complemented by Nuestra’s efforts to educate and mobilize potential victims by organizing neighborhood associations, hosting clean-up events and supporting youth programs.

Even redevelopment blueprints are ripe for police input. In South Los Angeles, the Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD) adjusted plans for the location and structure of parking around a property it was redeveloping for youth aging out of foster care. When staff invited Los Angeles Police Department officers to look at blueprints, the officers mused that the original parking plan could lead to problems, given the neighborhood’s reputation for drive-up drug dealing and disorder. Relocating the parking and adjusting a building entrance necessitated major changes to the site plan, but the CRDC deemed them worthwhile to keep future tenants and the community safe.

The coalition and the police have since expanded their partnership and are now working together on a new reentry initiative to help people who are returning to the neighborhood from incarceration to access needed support services—a proven strategy for reducing recidivism. CRCD also serves as a liaison for merchants on a main commercial corridor with local police to help keep lines of communication open about crime prevention and response.

2. Be creative in building collective efficacy around safety.

In some neighborhoods, the urgency to address public safety threats serves as a strong rallying point for collective action.Community development organizations can play an important role in brokering police-community dialogue to ensure that the conversation does not turn unproductive with finger-pointing (“The police should get a handle on this”) or demands (“We need more officers”), but instead looks at ways that both the community and police can establish and uphold standards of behavior.

In other places, crime may be seen as part of daily life—not necessarily accepted and certainly not welcome, but a persistent reality nonetheless. Experiences in these communities underscore the importance of looking at safety as an interconnected piece of comprehensive revitalization, because other strands of a community development approach could prove to be the key to mobilizing people to tackle crime.

This was the case in North Minneapolis, where Project for Pride In Living and a host of public and private partners rallied around environmental themes as they tackled problem properties in a neighborhood with notably high vacancy, narcotics activity and violence. Project leaders describe the neighbors’ decision to build an “ecovillage” as the root of a paradigm shift that framed a vision for neighborhood revitalization around building a healthy, green community, as opposed to battling crime and blight. Neighbors were excited to be part of a cutting-edge effort that brought positive attention and new resources to the area.

With significant support from the City of Minneapolis, including demolition of 30 vacant or nuisance properties, the residents’ newfound sense of collective action contributed to the creation of a tree farm, a water conservation demonstration garden and new LEED-certified homes on the sites of some of the worst-offending properties. One wonders if the partners would have achieved such marked safety achievements—drops in serious crimes of 73 percent over two years—if they had waited to tap the energy and resources created by the green theme until after law enforcement alone addressed crime.

3. Engage institutions, but don’t underestimate the power of personal relationships.

The Minneapolis partnership also serves as a reminder of the importance of building relationships in safety efforts, not unlike any other aspect of community development. When police move from planning operations on the “3100 block of 4th Street North” to planning operations on “Pam’s block,” as Inspector Mike Martin of the Minneapolis Police Department now refers to the street where one of his strongest resident allies lives, it is a signal that the hearts and minds behind the institutional resources are in the game. Inspector Martin met Pam because she had the courage and tenacity to call the police nearly daily to report drug activity and shots fired in her neighborhood. Many people involved in her neighborhood’s safety initiative have recalled that it was Pam’s despair following repeated burglaries of her home that rallied the institutions—the City’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, Minneapolis Police Department, Project for Pride in Living, Hawthorne Neighborhood Association and others—to come together around a plan for strategically timed joint interventions that would coordinate with the residents’ vision for a green community.

While individual relationships are critical, Olneyville’s experience in maintaining momentum through the transition of key police leaders in their district is instructive here as well. Frequent transfers of personnel are endemic to many police departments due to the nature of how officers are promoted through departmental hierarchy and as an anti-corruption measure. Community developers need to be proactive in ensuring that their police partners effectively “pass the baton” to their successors by establishing structures for regular communication and joint decision-making that newly assigned officers and commanders can quickly join and by asking trusted police partners to communicate the value of community development partnerships and projects to colleagues as they move on to new roles. Developing relationships on multiple levels of the police hierarchy is important as well, regardless of the size of the department.

Why Now?

Hundreds of public safety partnerships like the examples cited above have proven that integrated community safety strategies yield more lasting results than the improvements that police or developers can achieve independently. That’s important to note because naysayers may argue that police don’t have time to attend meetings or engage in nontraditional police work as public budgets shrink.

In fact, pursuing truly integrated safety and economic development projects is a timely proposition for just this reason. Counting solely on police presence as a crime control strategy is not fiscally realistic in most jurisdictions. Though the community development industry would be well served by more examination of the relative costs and benefits of more complex collaborative approaches, we already know that leveraging community development as a complement to strategic law enforcement saves time and money.5 More than 30 police chiefs have stood alongside LISC in highlighting this as they seek to do more with less.

The fact that this approach is effective and efficient in the long-run doesn’t mean that it is easy. Law enforcement agencies and community development organizations have strikingly different ways of doing business, and the distrust and cultural barriers that have prevented communities from working in lockstep with police to address neighborhood crime often have valid and complex roots.

The myriad players in the public and private sectors that provide the resources and policy structures for comprehensive community development should reward those practitioners on the frontlines who make the effort to build and maintain meaningful safety partnerships. For example, federal programs such as Choice Neighborhoods, Promise Neighborhoods and other new efforts emerging from the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative should encourage applicants to articulate how police and other law enforcement personnel are engaged in planning revitalization initiatives. Peer review of strong proposals should include individuals familiar with crime prevention theory and practice, or at the very least, take note of applications that reflect strategic consideration of how crime control can enhance development and how development can advance public safety.

Corporations like MetLife and philanthropies like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are out in front through their investment in technical assistance to help grassroots groups form and grow these kind of partnerships. If courageous practitioners step out of traditional roles, with the backing of foundations and policymakers who encourage cross-sector innovation, we will be positioned to make safety a truly effective “foundation” of comprehensive revitalization efforts in cities nationwide.

Julia Ryan is director of the LISC Community Safety Initiative, a national program which supports strategic alliances between community developers and law enforcement to reduce crime and spur investment in troubled neighborhoods. Prior to joining LISC, Ryan did program development and fundraising for a variety of community development and immigrant service organizations in Massachusetts and New York.


1  Effective CPTED applications consider how the physical, social and economic conditions of places can be shaped to minimize opportunities and motivations for crime. For more on modern CPTED, visit the website of the International CPTED Association (www.cpted.net) or read SafeGrowth: Creating Safety and Sustainability through Community Building and Urban Design by Gregory Saville and Mona Mangat.

2  See Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, www.popcenter.org/about/?p=?triangle, May 2011.

3  For the LISC publication series, see LISC's CSI website. For the DOJ book, see Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky, Building Our Way Out of Crime: The Transformative Power of Police-Community Developer Partnershipswww.cops.usdoj.gov/ric/ResourceDetail.aspx?RID=569.

4  For more discussion of collective efficacy and social capital, see articles by Chris Walker and Anne C. Kubisch et al. in the inaugural issue of this Journal (December 2010), www.instituteccd.org/library/category/283.

5  As an example of the kind of cost-benefit analysis that can inform decision-making in this arena, see Susan Catron and Robert W. Wassmer, “A Benefit-Cost Analysis of the Auburn Boulevard Revitalization Project,” Local Initiatives Support Corporation (2005).

Posted in Journal Volume 2, Number 1 -- July, 2011Community SafetyRhode Island