It’s a seemingly simple question, with a surprisingly complex answer. We address it here because it is central to describing what our reimagining public safety initiative is and is not trying to accomplish.
Although discussions of public safety often focus solely on policing and protection from crime, many of the factors that impact the public’s safety and perceptions of safety have nothing to do with the police, and more to do with the resources people need to lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives. For someone experiencing a substance use disorder, this could mean naloxone followed by connection to treatment. For someone who is homeless, this could mean permanent housing. For someone impacted by guns, this could mean violence interruption and victims’ services. For someone in the midst of a neighborhood conflict over noise, this could mean mediation services and mitigation measures. For someone in poverty, this could mean adequate and nutritious food for them and their family.
Using the police as a one-size-fits-all responder for these wide-ranging aspects of “public safety” — challenges for which police are not typically trained or adequately resourced — obviously is going to leave people in need without their underlying problem addressed. And the overuse and misuse of police drives over-incarceration and excessive uses of force, with a disparate impact in Black and other communities of color.
In doing the work of reimagining public safety, we are aware that what community members point to as their public safety needs are vast. In our community conversations with residents, they often point to such critical aspects of feeling safe as available housing, sufficient food, and public transportation, among others.
These things that community members are asking for are extremely important, and our work touches on them frequently in various ways.
But at its core, our work focuses on the critical moment of first response. We are asking who can provide the best outcome for individuals and communities when they issue an urgent call for help. We are not claiming to have solved the much deeper challenges of assuring individuals have adequate housing, food, education, and other critical elements of a safe and healthy life.
In short: RPS seeks to redesign public safety services to align better the needs and expectations of communities with the skills and competencies of first responders. We contemplate providing first response in ways that do not necessarily involve police, while recognizing that the coercive authority of the state is necessary and will remain necessary in some situations.
A public health analogy may help make clear the boundaries of our work. In public health, interventions can be distinguished as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary.” Primary intervention is preventative behavior or treatment, such as educating people about the danger of using certain narcotic substances. Secondary intervention is an emergency response in crisis, such as the provision of naloxone to someone who has overdosed. Tertiary intervention is the long-term, ongoing management of a health challenge, such as treatment to overcome addiction.
Our RPS initiative looks most closely at secondary and tertiary actions, even as we recognize that all interventions must be integrated and that few will be successful in a silo. For example, we might recommend a pre-arrest diversion program to help individuals living with substance use issues avoid the carceral system, but this will fail without sufficient treatment programs in the area. Similarly, an individual’s prospects for long-term recovery from addiction are tied to their ability to meet basic needs, such as housing and employment, during and after treatment.
Even though we are not tackling the full range of public safety needs, our work recognizes that systems designed to provide full public safety must work in close coordination with one another to ensure that the full range of individual needs are contemplated and addressed. For that reason, we strongly encourage those acting on our recommendations for improved first response protocols always to look beyond our proposals to the broader solutions that will address long-term, pervasive, critical needs.
Stated differently, jurisdictions not only need to focus on first response, but also the “handoff” from first response to any necessary longer-term services. There must be something to which responders—whether police or alternative responders—can make the hand off.
Public safety interventions of all kinds are critical and sensitive points of contact between the government and individuals, with enormous potential for both positive and negative outcomes. If viewed and managed holistically, with services aligned to needs and long-term solutions in place, then our communities will be safer, stronger, and healthier. It is RPS’s goal to help achieve this vision, by tackling at its core the problem of first response.
Reimagining Public Safety: First Convening Report, Policing Project at NYU Law
How to Rethink the Policing Function, Policing Project at NYU Law
What is Public Safety?, Boston University Law Review