Redefining Community Safety in Three Local Counties

By: Lee Ann Slocum, Beth Huebner, Claire Greene, Kiley Bednar, Adriano Udani

Community Engagement December 12, 2023

Everyone wants to feel safe in their community. Yet, we know little about how people make sense of what community safety looks and feels like to them. Discussions among policy makers and the media often center on a very specific and limited conception of safety. It emphasizes crime rates as a key measure, and the criminal legal system as the primary means of achieving this goal.

But aspects of safety captured by criminal legal system data may not align with community priorities or values. Allowing communities to define what safety means to them enables them to tailor this definition to their needs and values. It allows them to identify their own priorities for action, helping to advance the goal of safety for all.

A new report explores the meaning of community safety for people who live and work in three US counties. Each county faces some challenges that impact views of safety. Missoula County, Montana; St. Louis County, Missouri; and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina are all currently working on interventions around crime and community safety funded, in part, through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation‘s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative.

In Missoula, there is general agreement that the physical and social environment is rapidly changing. Housing-related concerns and the visibility of the unhoused population dominate conversations around safety. Part of these changes are due to an influx of new residents and associated increases in home prices, making basic needs less affordable even for people with stable employment. At the same time, many perceived that the unhoused population was growing in visibility because of a higher prevalence of drugs, a limited supply of low-income housing, and difficulty accessing mental health and substance use treatment services.

In St. Louis, violence is a significant concern for area residents. Like in many places, aggravated assaults and homicide rose at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Concerns about violence are exacerbated by the county’s proximity to St. Louis City, which has high rates of these crimes. St. Louis County’s high level of fragmentation creates many challenges for community safety as it hinders the ability to address crime and safety-related concerns in a coordinated fashion. Black county residents, particularly those residing in North County, are disproportionately impacted by crime and the criminal legal system.

Violence is also a significant concern for residents of Mecklenburg County. Violence, particularly aggravated assault, and homicide, increased rapidly from 2018 through 2020, before leveling off and falling; however, violence, particularly gun violence, continues to be a significant safety related concern for people in Mecklenburg County. Other forms of violence, including among youth and police violence, are also viewed as serious concerns.

An analysis of local newspaper coverage of crime trends found that media reports often attributed increasing violence to root social causes (e.g., mental health issues, substance use, poverty); however, the solutions presented were just as or more likely to rely on the criminal legal system. Further, individuals who work for the courts, law enforcement, and government were quoted most frequently, while the perspectives of system-impacted individuals were rare. Although many factors shape news coverage, these selective narratives have significant sway over public perceptions of violence.

To develop a new conceptualization of community safety, we asked people what this term means to them. We solicited a group of local stakeholders to help organize and make sense of these responses. They generated a Community Safety Concept Map. It has 11 components grouped into five domains or “regions”:

  1. Personal safety and security;
  2. Thriving and socially connected community;
  3. Resources and services for a socially and economically just community;
  4. Responsive and effective government and public safety agencies;
  5. Systems for preventing and addressing harm.

Personal safety and security are at the heart of community safety for most people, yet the types of harm and day-to-day hassles that concerned people varied based on life experiences. These differences underscore that conversations about community safety must be inclusive and include the perspectives of marginalized groups, as their safety concerns may require a different set of policies and actions.

On average, people rated all the components of community safety as important or very important. Recognizing the overlap of safety with other community priorities, such as ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met and an equal opportunity to lead a stable life, can help promote and sustain collaboration among agencies.

Several key recommendations emerged from the work:

Language is important. Framing conversations around “community safety” Instead of “public safety” may help people think more expansively about what safety looks like and how to achieve this goal. Redefining community safety in this way has the potential to reveal the broader historical forces that create and sustain inequalities in accessing safety.

Educate people on what a more inclusive and equitable vision of safety can look like. While low rates of violence and feeling secure are key components of community safety, it is much more than that. The methods used in the report can help residents and stakeholders see a range of possibilities that move beyond a focus on crime statistics.

Identify local priorities and structure future action steps using the Community Safety Concept Map that was generated from this research. This map is designed to be a dynamic tool to engender discussions about safety and to ensure that a holistic perspective is being considered by a multitude of stakeholders (e.g., community groups, local leaders, educators).

Collect data from a representative group of community members, making sure to include the perspectives of groups who are most impacted by crime and the criminal legal system. This includes unhoused individuals, people of color, and other minoritized groups as well as people who work in the criminal legal system. Rural communities may have unique perspectives on safety and should be included in any effort of this type.

Make information on community safety readily available, so that it can be used by a variety of stakeholders. All three counties have ongoing data collection efforts that can be leveraged to measure various components of community safety identified in this study. Creating a dashboard or website that brings together these data and makes them easily accessible can empower communities to assess their own progress toward achieving safety.

When resident input is solicited, ensure there is follow-up, so people know how the information is being used. For example, local stakeholders could partner with the media to describe what is being done to address safety-related concerns and how the community can contribute to these efforts.

Replicate this work focusing on the experiences of youth. Youth are an important part of the community that we were not able to reach in this study, and they likely have very different views than older community members. From an equity and representation perspective, it is important to consider their views.

Conduct this work on a regular basis to keep up with shifting priorities. Changes in the demographic or economic profile, like what happened during the COVID – 19 pandemic, can change community perceptions. Views on safety are dynamic and should continue to be reassessed.

The Prioritizing and Measuring Community Safety Toolkit associated with this work provides a step-by-step guide for local communities interested in reimagining community safety.

Hand the microphone to individuals closest to the problem to illuminate overlooked areas of safety that are often taken for granted or absent from mainstream discussions about this issue. Moving forward, communities can benefit from local conversations that are more centered on advancing safety for all than narrow crime-oriented definitions that are just one component of how people experience and think about safety.