Op-Ed

Community safety means more than guns, badges and crime

Today’s conversation on community safety is intensely focused on race relations and the police. Are officers’ practices discriminatory, their decisions biased, their use of force justified?

These are urgent issues. However, reducing police shootings alone will not make for safer neighborhoods in Los Angeles or anywhere else. For that, we need a new way of thinking about what community safety truly means.

Allow me to put my pediatrician’s hat on for a moment, and say this: The overwhelming majority of dangers and harms that confront young people and families have nothing to do with guns or badges.

Lack of affordable, quality child care and preschool is harmful, and two-thirds of California 4-year-olds aren’t enrolled in pre-school. As Flint, Mich., reminded us, lead-poisoned tap water is harmful. The epidemic of black and Latino boys in the third grade who cannot read with proficiency is harmful; reading by that age is a key predictor of high school graduation. Suspending children out of school is harmful; research finds those suspended are at higher risk of dropping out and getting in trouble with the law. A lack of parks and safe places to exercise can be harmful, and Los Angeles County is “park poor” compared with other urban areas.

As Ferguson, Mo., showed us, when residents feel ignored and disconnected, it can be harmful — even lethal. The outrage following the police killing of young Michael Brown was fueled by the African American community’s sense of abandonment by their local government.

Cities, starting with Los Angeles, should put these kinds of issues and needs at the center of our thinking on community safety. 

Improving police-community relations is an essential safety strategy, as well as just the right thing to do. Many excellent police officers are doing their best for Los Angeles, but their effectiveness and security are compromised when community trust falters. To address this, Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck should provide greater transparency in police shooting investigations and hold Police Commission meetings in community locations to allow for more meaningful participation. The LAPD also should accelerate the training reforms it has been piloting with civil rights attorney Connie Rice and support research into racial and gender biases, such as the work of the Center for Policing Equity co-founded by UCLA professor Philip Goff.

But spending on law enforcement cannot be the only way we think about investing in improving community safety. Any shift certainly will entail difficult conversations about how L.A. city and county budgets are organized and allocated. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s and probation departments together have nearly 27,000 employee positions, compared to just 5,000 jobs in mental health and 1,600 in parks and recreation. We need to move public spending away from reacting to crime, and do more to prevent it in the first place.

Research can help us understand how to do that. If we examine data, such as that of UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project, which maps where arrestees live and calculates the cost of their incarceration, we can see where we need to target preventive resources. For instance, the top reasons for being booked in Los Angeles County Jail are drug possession, driving while under the influence and domestic violence, suggesting we need more investments in mental health and addiction treatment in affected neighborhoods. More importantly, we need to look upstream and provide these communities with more support for preschool, school-based health services, after-school programs and other services that keep kids in school and support families.

With such expanded thinking, garden-variety crime data would no longer be the primary measure of a community’s safety. Yes, let’s keep track of homicide and assault rates, but also add things like access to mental health services, quality child care, school truancy rates, and the number of youth and adults in the criminal justice system.  

Californians are ready for this evolution in thinking. In a recent Field Poll, two-thirds of state voters said mental health, job training and youth programs were the most important investments for community safety, compared with just 11% support for building more prisons and jails.

Just as the word peace means more than the absence of war, and health means more than the absence of disease, we must come to understand that safety means more than an absence of crime. Los Angeles can lead the way on this next round of breakthrough thinking, practice and partnership.

Dr. Robert K. Ross, is president and CEO of The California Endowment.

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