Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress published a new report that offers a road map for city governments to invest in a community-driven approach to public safety, starting by establishing an Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS)—a civilian arm of government dedicated to nonpunitive safety solutions. By embedding community-driven safety strategies into the fabric of government, an ONS can lay the foundation for a long-term shift in a city’s approach to public safety.
The city of Richmond, California, was an early pioneer of the model, establishing their ONS in 2007. Ten years later, the city’s homicide rate had dropped by 80 percent. Today, a number of cities—including New York City, Milwaukee, and Oakland, California—have now established their own civilian safety agencies.
As the United States collectively reexamines the role of law enforcement in society, cities have an opportunity to sustainably reduce the footprint of policing. By establishing an ONS, cities take an important step toward a future in which arrest and incarceration are no longer the first response to every issue in society. With the infrastructure to support community-driven solutions, local governments can help bring residents’ vision for safety and justice into existence.
The report offers an in-depth look at the functions of an ONS, including the types of evidence-based public safety programming these offices can support and the key considerations for cities looking to establish a similar government agency. The report concludes that an ONS can help ensure that community-driven interventions are durable, sustainable, and elevated as integral elements of public safety practice—not just an experimental alternative to enforcement.
An ONS can function as a hub for all nonpunitive public safety functions, including the following interrelated approaches:
- Violence interruption: Many ONSs support violence interruption models, which employ credible messengers—community members who are able to connect with individuals at high risk of engaging in violence based on their shared backgrounds and life experiences—as community conflict mediators. Violence interrupters rely on their training and credibility within the community to de-escalate conflicts, helping to resolve issues peacefully to prevent incidences of violence.
- Transformative mentoring: An ONS can operate transformative mentoring programs, which rely on credible messengers to provide intensive, one-on-one mentorship for clients at highest risk of engaging in violence.
- Job readiness programs: An ONS may provide job readiness services that pair relevant supportive services with pathways to careers, which have been shown to reduce violence and other risky behaviors among participants. The focus of such programs can vary widely, from summer jobs for young people to transitional employment for justice-involved residents.
- Bridging trust gaps: An ONS can play an essential role in strengthening community well-being, beyond just preventing violence or crime. In particular, a civilian-led ONS can help build more trustworthy governments and bridge the divide between public officials and communities where distrust in police runs deep. This may be especially important among low-income communities of color, many of whom have experienced generations of neglect and harm at the hands of the government.
- Coordinating nonpolice responses for calls for service: An ONS can also operate a branch of civilian first responders to dispatch unarmed trained professionals in response to calls for service that do not require a police response, which might include calls related to behavioral health and social service needs or low-level community conflicts and disturbances. Last June, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, announced plans to create a new civilian public safety agency that will respond to certain social issues in lieu of police officers.
“For years, advocates have been calling for an approach to public safety that isn’t based solely around police. More and more Americans are now reevaluating the role of the police, and it’s time for local governments to reflect the community’s vision for public safety,” said Betsy Pearl, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at CAP and author of this report. “By establishing a civilian Office of Neighborhood Safety, local officials can lay the foundation for stronger communities and a government that is more responsive to the needs of its residents.”
Read the report: “Beyond Policing: Investing in Offices of Neighborhood Safety” by Betsy Pearl
Read the fact sheet: “The Office of Neighborhood Safety: How Governments Can Support Community-Driven Solutions” by Betsy Pearl
For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Claudia Montecinos at email@example.com.