Many Americans live in urban neighborhoods that deal with a myriad of issues. The police don’t always respond; corner stores allow loitering; children are left unattended; neighbors are apathetic; and the fear of gun violence is very real. The violence and crime issues that plague many urban American communities’ have become so much a part of the norm that it seems to have become the only part of safety we focus on. As a response to gun violence in cities, many community-based initiatives and community policing strategies like Philly Rising, Operation Cease Fire, and STRYVE work hard to create safer communities by stemming the tide of violence. Their work to aid vulnerable populations and create solutions that allow community members to become engaged participants in their collective future is highly commendable. While the work of these organizations and many others is critically important in creating safer communities, the issues they tackle are not the only issues that plague our communities.
I am concerned that our approach to community safety is too limited. While we address violence, we are not looking deeply at other critical issues that impact community safety. I can’t be the only American wondering whether or not citizens are equipped with neighborhood emergency evacuation plans should there be a natural or man-made disaster. I have reviewed the tangled color-coded maps on my City’s website, and I still don’t know where to go or what to do. Do all homes have smoke detectors or fire extinguishers so that a fire can be stopped before it gets out of hand? I live in a row home and a fire can destroy the entire block of houses. Are children being properly attended with a babysitter or child care provider who is skilled in CPR and basic first aid? Many of my neighbors work off hour jobs and they have to depend on their older children to provide care for the younger siblings, very few or any of them know how to respond to an emergency outside of calling 911. I like to think of myself as a well informed and active citizen within my community, however, I have serious reservations about my safety in its entirety.
For too long we have let the definition of community safety languish as a general phrase for ‘crime prevention’ and ‘violence reduction’. We can’t just look to thwart murder rates and believe that once we get down to an acceptable number of deaths we have created a safe community. Community safety is multifaceted and it must include emergency management and crisis response; processes and plans that take communities from prevention/mitigation through recovery for natural and man-made disasters; the well being of the family unit; and innovative placemaking. Moreover, community safety planning has to be accessible, understandable, and made a part of our collective community culture. We must do better and we must think bigger- all of us- governments, school districts, businesses, and citizens. We all have a stake in creating safe communities. Governments can help by creating and funding solid platforms that work to address and support community safety in its entirety. As anchor institutions school districts, colleges and universities, and businesses should have clearly outlined participation plans that defines their role in the creation of successful community safety plans and partnerships.
It has become imperative that we redefine community safety for the 21st century and create a comprehensive definition. Over and over again we have witnessed and felt the effect of viewing community safety in too limited a scope. There have been many community safety disasters both natural and man-made like Katrina and Sandy Hook that have hammered home the fact that our communities were not prepared. As we march toward the future, our communities must be focused on being fortified, sustainable, and resilient. In order to improve our collective quality of life let’s create a new wide-ranging definition for community safety – one that is bold and smart, that works.