State of the Cities in 2011: Prioritizing Public Safety

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This is the final post of a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

Given the dire state of many municipal budgets, it makes sense that local governments are trying to trim the fat and balance budgets.  However, one area where there is always hesitancy to make cuts is public safety.  In fact, in this year’s analysis of State of the Cities Addresses, we found that many mayors are increasing efforts to make their communities safe places for their residents.  Strong local economies, great infrastructure improvements, more efficient government and all the other topics covered over the past couple of weeks are of little importance if citizens do not feel safe in their neighborhoods.

Beaverton, Ore., surveyed its residents on what the top priority for the city should be in providing public services, and out of forty choices, “Continuing Community Policing” was what mattered most.  Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., went as far as to claim that public safety was the city’s top priority.

Despite the tough economic times, many cities are not holding back in providing first responders with the resources necessary to excel at their jobs.  Mesquite, Texas, recently opened a new police headquarters, complete with an emergency operations center.  A number of cities increased, or are planning to increase, police forces.  Montgomery, Ala., has its largest contingency of police officers ever – about thirty more than it previously has had.

Even in cities where hiring new officers or increasing resources is proving to be difficult, mayors are not standing idly by.  Marion, Iowa, reorganized its fire department to increase efficiency, allowing for more resources to be directed towards public education efforts.  About 5,300 residents were provided fire safety education.  A number of cities turned to residents for assistance in maintaining safe streets.  In her address, Syracuse, N.Y., mayor Stephanie Miner highlighted a number of civilian led groups working with first responders to improve the relationship between the residents and the police department.  Nampa, Idaho, mayor Tom Dale noted that over 5,000 volunteer hours were logged by citizen patrols.

Some of the larger cities across the nation are looking at the issue of public safety more comprehensively.  In New York City, there is a particular focus on youthful offenders.  The city is working to develop a Youth Justice Center to handle cases for offenders up to age 21.  To combat chronic truancy, over 2,000 volunteers will be added to the school system.  In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino stressed the importance of relaxing the Criminal Offender Record Inquiry laws which will make it easier for offenders to reenter society.

Many mayors are recognizing that even though budgets are shrinking, they cannot sacrifice the long term safety of their communities.  Omaha, Neb., mayor Jim Suttle said, “Our latest crime statistics indicate that a combination of crime prevention, mentoring, enforcement and education are getting gang members off the street and providing job opportunities to those who may otherwise turn to criminal activity.”  This attitude does not means that mayors are ignoring the realities they are facing.  In fact, Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, Ill., said “I will say today that I’m not afraid of touching the third rail because we are in too desperate of times to ‘not’ acknowledge the elephant in the room.  Very soon it will be absolutely imperative that this community take a hard look at the public safety portion of this discussion.”

We’ve all seen the stories in the news of public safety workers being laid off, and it’s easy to focus on all these cuts, but we cannot forget that a lot of cities are meeting their challenges head on.  Public safety will always be a central responsibility of local governments, and mayors are not shying away from the challenge.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011.  Thank you for following our analysis of the issues of importance to cities across the nation.