Francisco Donoso

Rethinking Rigidity: How Government Can Be A Better Partner in Promoting Neighborhood Safety

Renita Francois and Jessica Mofield

A voice from inside city hall explains how government can effectively partner with community groups to strengthen the social fabric.

A voice from inside city hall explains how government can effectively partner with community groups to strengthen the social fabric.

In 2014, a 31 percent increase in shootings in New York City’s public housing developments compelled policy makers to invest $210.5 million in the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), a comprehensive crime reduction strategy focused on 15 developments in the city’s most chronically underserved neighborhoods. Rooted in theory and practice showing how concentrated disadvantage, physical disorder and lack of trust in government institutions can breed violence, MAP has sought to address these conditions as a means of improving safety and well-being. In the process, MAP is attempting to fundamentally shift the city’s approach to reducing crime by asking traditional law enforcement actors to make room at the table for a new set of players, including nonprofit organizations and residents of public housing. Agencies who may have never had the word “safety” printed in any of their materials are now being asked to help keep the peace in their neighborhoods.  

At the center of this effort is NeighborhoodStat, a process that brings together residents of public housing, community-based organizations and city agencies to use data and the knowledge of residents to identify barriers to community safety and thriving. NeighborhoodStat is an effort to achieve authentic community engagement. The process is both hyperlocal and systemic, creating pathways for residents to elevate chronic issues to the attention of citywide policy makers and agency leadership.  

Through NeighborhoodStat, residents are allocated funding to address public safety challenges as they see fit, implementing projects that range from music programs for youth to building a serenity garden in a space previously suffering from a proliferation of needles due to open-air substance abuse. Organizers from the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation are responsible for helping residents mobilize their neighbors. All of these activities are in service of one goal: to center the voices of those most impacted in the creation of solutions to pressing local challenges and to employ strategies for achieving safety that do not rely on handcuffs and jail cells. 

MAP is administered by the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which also oversees the city’s efforts to reduce gun violence through community-based strategies. The city has a network of Cure Violence programs that together comprise a Crisis Management System. The Office of Neighborhood Safety weaves together these strands of work. The Crisis Management System focuses on the small percentage of community members who are at risk of harming or being harmed by gun violence. NeighborhoodStat attempts to support a community’s ability to solve its problems the way it sees fit. And MAP works to transform physical space, addressing conditions that may contribute to residents feeling unsafe. This amounts to something unprecedented, at least in New York City: a citywide, community-centered effort to attack chronic violence at the source. 

 Residents clearly described safety as both a state of mind and a condition of their environment.

The Office of Neighborhood Safety is composed of mostly people of color from communities like the ones being served. We have had to innovate and create new tools along the way. In particular, we have sought to create new metrics to gauge safety. Crime data will only take us so far.

Jessica Mofield

Director, Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence

A sobering example of the role the Crisis Management System plays is particularly evident when someone has been shot and is rushed to a trauma center. The trauma center contacts the local community-based partner which sends a “responder” who is specially trained to connect with the person who has been shot in order to provide support and to prevent an escalating cycle of retaliation. Simultaneously, the community-based partner also sends out violence interrupters and outreach workers to better understand the who, what, when, where and why of the shooting so that an effective intervention can be launched. Rituals of remembrance (such as a vigil) are important as ways to denounce the violence and the trauma it causes in our communities. Residents, clergy, advocates and community-based organizations activate the next phase of engagement to mobilize and publicly condemn the act of violence. Connections to victim services and housing are intertwined throughout this process. Mobile trauma units are deployed to provide access to healing resources and a peaceful space. All of these components work together to demonstrate that it is possible to choose healing and humanity over distress and violence. 

In 2020, the Office of Neighborhood Safety commissioned a participatory research project to produce new metrics that reflected a more holistic understanding of safety and thriving. What we learned is that, “residents clearly described safety as both a state of mind and a condition of their environment, pointing to the psychological and physical ways that safety is experienced. When asked to define safety, it was common for residents to describe external factors, such as hot water, food access, and a good job alongside internal factors such as freedom from fear and a sense of calm.” Authentic community engagement requires the government to acknowledge residents’ definition of safety and the role that resources and investments can play in reducing crime. 

Increasing investments in opportunity, improving the physical infrastructure and building trust with communities represent a three-pronged approach to combating some of the conditions that lead to crime, including systemic racism, deeply entrenched poverty, government disinvestment and lack of economic opportunity, among other failings.  Sadly, many municipalities across the country are failing to take even the smallest steps in this direction, though they are willing to spend billions to keep whole communities occupied or in jail. Whether crime goes up or down, in many places, the standard operating procedure is to spend money fortifying the criminal justice system, while our schools fail, while upward mobility is out of grasp for large swaths of our residents and while our community-based institutions have to jump through hoops for grants to keep their doors open. 

Even when funding is available for the kinds of community-based partners who play critical roles in supporting community safety, the barriers to getting that money are substantial. In New York City, small organizations often have to contend with archaic fiscal processes that include mountains of paperwork, unnecessarily detailed oversight and lengthy delays to payment that sometimes extend years past when the work was completed. While those of us in government have an obligation to determine how programs are working and how public dollars are spent, we must be careful not to put needless obstacles in the way of our partners on the ground. 

City government is making impressive strides toward a more humane and equitable approach to safety, but that doesn’t preclude it from getting in its own way. Our investments in supportive and restorative resources still pale in comparison to our outsized criminal justice system investments. We still have agencies who are reluctant to change outdated and robotic practices to meet communities where they are. For all too many agencies, inviting community groups to set up tables at city-sponsored events is the limit of community engagement. And all too many agencies continue to insist upon centralized and standardized models of service delivery as opposed to approaches tailored to local practices and preferences. Dynamic issues require dynamic responses, not rigid inflexibility. ◘