This is the third post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.
Atlanta, Ga. Mayor Kasim Reed announced in his State of the City Address that the Atlanta Police Department recruited more than 700 new police officers last year, and now has a force more than 1,940 strong, making it the biggest force in the city’s history. But Mayor Reed was quick to note that this expansion is about much more than bragging rights about the city’s massive police force, it’s about having a better trained force, one with improved response capabilities, one that is responsive to the needs of citizens and able to reduce crime and save lives.
As Mayor Reed recognized, a comprehensive public safety program goes beyond simply addressing personnel, equipment and budget concerns. Public safety is an integral and interconnected part of the bedrock on which communities organize themselves. As Pine Bluff, Ark. Mayor Debe Hollingsworth stated, “It is the heartbeat to any healthy community.” In their State of the City Address this year, we saw mayors from all over the country making the link between public safety and economic development, neighborhood revitalization efforts, civic engagement and a host of other essential city functions. Many went beyond just acknowledging these connections; they’ve developed innovative policies and programs that explicitly used these linkages to build stronger communities.
Public Safety and Economic Development: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Recognizing innovation within the realm of public safety as it relates to economic development and revitalization is itself a relatively new and innovative concept. And it’s one that Salt Lake City, Utah has embraced. The city is strategically locating its new public safety building in the heart of downtown with the intention of attracting community activities, festivals and events as a means to regenerate development in the area. Mayor Ralph Becker also noted that “the building will be an architectural and engineering feat as the first net-zero public safety facility in the nation.”
Baton, Rouge, La. Mayor Kip Holden was excited that his city recently had “an unexpected opportunity to purchase the 24-acre former Women’s Hospital site to convert it to a state-of-the-art public safety complex,” which will provide Baton Rouge with “a unique opportunity to create a combined law enforcement presence in the center of the City.” This public safety-economic redevelopment project goes hand-in-glove with Mayor Holden’s focus on blight elimination and economic revitalization, as discussed in the previous State of the Cities 2013 post.
In Baltimore, Md., Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake noted, “The biggest challenge confronting our neighborhoods is the scourge of 50 years of disinvestment and the thousands of vacant homes left behind.” The city’s Vacants to Value program reduces blighted properties throughout the city by tearing down or rehabbing vacant city-owned properties. Mayor Rawlings-Blake proudly reported that “250 vacants have been torn down, nearly a thousand more are being rehabbed, and sales of vacant city-owned properties have increased five-fold. More than 30 acres of vacant lots have been turned over to create community green spaces.” As a result of Baltimore’s economic revitalization efforts, these blighted spaces that dotted the city’s landscape and posed a threat to public safety are now a community amenity.
Civic Engagement and Partnerships: Ties that Bind
Solutions to public safety challenges faced by local governments don’t happen in a vacuum; they occur when city leaders include residents in the problem-solving process. Mayor Steve Miklos of Folsom, Calif. echoed this idea with the statement: “The community supports our public safety efforts by serving as our eyes and ears.”
Several mayors noted an encouraging reduction in overall crime rates in recent years. In cities such as Memphis, Tenn. and Salem, Ore., this was attributed in large part to ramped-up civic engagement efforts on the part of law enforcement. Memphis Mayor AC Wharton and the Memphis Police Department rolled out a new community-oriented policing initiative to help law enforcement become more attuned to the needs and concerns of the citizens that they serve and protect. Results have been positive so far. In neighborhoods where this initiative has been implemented, police have seen a noticeable drop in criminal activity.
In Salem, the police department collaborated with neighborhood watch groups and community organizations to address complaints and concerns about a variety of issues, including loitering and the increase of homeless encampments in city parks. Mayor Anna Paterson explained the value of partnerships in solving these issues: “By bringing people from businesses, neighborhood groups, bicycle groups and park users together with representatives from mental health and addiction services, faith groups, shelter operators, and law enforcement officers, we began to understand the patterns that lead people into desperate circumstances, and the resources needed to turn this situation around.”
A Means to an End
Mayors across the country are making smart and innovative investments in public safety, “investments that…make sure that some family, some mom, some dad, some college student is making it home safely because of the blanket of protection that we chose to provide,” as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed aptly stated. Cities are using innovation to foster communication between residents, local officials, and public safety workers towards the goal of helping public safety employees do their jobs better. “It’s not the buildings, it’s not the equipment, it’s not the police cars, or the fire engines that make a difference,” said Mayor Eric Hogue of Wylie, Texas. He continued, “it is the people…and the police officers and firefighters who have made a difference in protecting our city.”