The public uproar over racist and overly aggressive policing has called into question the need for and role of police, and by implication the entire public safety system. For many, the status quo is no longer acceptable.
The central question is: How can we better use the public money devoted to public safety ($800-$900 per capita per year, according to the U.S. Census of Governments) to get more safety for everyone, in every community? It will take a complete re-envisioning of what safety is and where it comes from.
The Third Precinct in Minneapolis would be the right place to start since the precinct station, now an empty shell that housed those charged for George Floyd’s death, is surrounded by a vibrant, engaged community that expects action. That community could have a new approach to safety for all envisioned in three months and on its way toward implementation by the end of the year.
What is safety?
Here are five ways people often think about safety.
1) People feel safe when the systems that are supposed to keep them safe treat them fairly, predictably, equitably, humanely and effectively. In this sense safety is achieved if the system does not advantage or disadvantage any group disproportionately.
2) People feel safe when they don’t feel threatened or afraid. Safety, then, is about preventing harm and making people feel secure where they live, work and play.
3) People feel safe when they know that if something bad did happen, someone would come to their defense and assistance. Safety is about responding to threats quickly to intervene, mitigate the harm and facilitate recovery.
4) People feel safe when they know there is one set of rules that are fair and apply to everyone. Safety is achieved when we comply with community laws, norms and expectations.
5) People feel safe when they take personal responsibility for safety in their community and believe all members of the community do the same.
The best way to get the safety we envision is to begin humbly. Start with a clean slate where anything is possible. Take nothing as given, nothing for granted. Recognize that we do not know the answer, nor do the experts.
Rather, think of this as a process to discover an answer, involving two groups:
One is a group of explorers who will have the job of searching the country, and even the world, with their minds wide open, looking for ways to achieve safety as defined above.
As they proceed, the explorers must come back to a second group, community stakeholders, to let them know what they have discovered and to get feedback on what the community thinks will work best. Armed with that feedback, the explorers will go back out and keep looking for strategies that are most likely to work.
The interaction between the explorers and community stakeholders is crucial. The explorers will offer the community insights about what works, what doesn’t, and why. What the explorers find will almost certainly both support and challenge the community. That’s critical.
Community stakeholders — drawn from all parts of the community — will need to wrestle with the questions raised by the explorers. That wrestling will require community stakeholders to challenge their own biases and build a common understanding of what constitutes safety and the means by which it can be realized — including the role of the community itself in assuring the safety of its members.
That common understanding of the what and the how of safety will constitute the community’s re-envisioned design — its architecture and blueprints — for how to create safety for all. With those blueprints in hand the community will be ready to see who is willing, and best able, to join in building and sustaining its re-envisioned safety systems.
Re-creating safety: The community decides
To find out who is best able to deliver on these new designs the community stakeholders should again take nothing as given, nothing for granted. They should issue an open invitation for organizations and people to propose how they could contribute to the community’s safety, what results they would deliver, in what time frame and at what price.
The community should invite the Police Department to make a proposal. But it should also invite other police departments, county sheriffs, the state police and even the police union to offer their best ideas for delivering community safety.
The same should be true for the fire service, the courts, the jails and the prisons. The community should see whom among these providers can and will be able to meet community expectations by thinking, partnering and delivering services in new and more effective ways.
But that is just the beginning. There are a whole host of other organizations that could and should play a role. The community stakeholders should invite local and state health, human and social services departments to offer proposals along with schools, nonprofits, churches and community organizations. Invite them to do so as individual organizations and in combination. Challenge anyone and everyone who thinks they can turn this new design into a functioning new system to make a proposal.
Once the community stakeholders have those proposals in hand they can sort and select the best, decide how to integrate them with one another, and form them into a new model for realizing safety with the money available. Each selected provider would get a charter specifying its purpose, outcomes, budget, accountability, consequences for success or failure, and the values and beliefs that will guide their work and relationships with the community.
Start in the Third Precinct
Engage the Third Precinct as a community in re-creating public safety for all, learn what works, then go citywide. Do this work outside and independent of City Hall, but in partnership with the city’s political leaders who must enable this process but cannot control it. The work will need, and benefit from, support and leadership of community, philanthropic, nonprofit, religious, educational, governmental and business organizations.
It doesn’t require changing the city charter or fighting with the union. It does require imagination, humility and the will to act. The community can create the re-envisioned safety system for the Third Precinct in three months and be implementing it before the end of the year. It’s time to act, not talk.
Peter Hutchinson was a deputy to the mayor of Minneapolis, superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and commissioner of Minnesota Department of Finance. This article is also submitted on behalf of seven colleagues at Re:DESIGN (www.redesigncpd.org), a collaboration of those who have led government and community organizations in Minnesota and across the nation.