Our legal system has always been singularly focused on identifying who caused harm and punishing them to the full extent of the law. To that end, our country spends over $266 billion dollars attempting to address violence through policing, prosecutions, and prisons. And yet none of those do anything to address the root causes of violence. I joined the Washington, D.C., US Attorney’s office in 2006, after earning my law degree and working several years at a firm, with the belief that the “right” people in power could fix a “broken” system that was often harmful to Black and brown communities.
Twelve years as a prosecutor showed me that I was wrong—especially when it came to violent crime. The way we respond to violence in our society begets even more violence. There is no conclusive evidence that the tired approach of ever harsher punishment reduces violence and builds safety. In fact, there’s evidence that imprisoning people for low-level offenses increases the likelihood that they will continue to be entangled with the system. In the United States, we put more people in prison than in any other advanced nation on Earth. Relying on policing and mass incarceration has curtailed the economic development and political power of Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, contributing to the continuance of inequitable practices and policies that do not serve people of color.
So in 2018, I left in search of solutions. And I’m certain that I found it in the community, and one in particular.
Since 2015, Newark, N.J., has been one of several cities that are looking to their people and grassroots leaders to redefine and build public safety. Community-centered public safety is about shifting the focus to the root causes of violence. Newark is now home to an ecosystem of funded programs that reduce violence while also tackling issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of access to mental health services, and other issues—factors that feed the source of violence and criminalized behavior.
There are few issues that stir up fear the way that violence and threats to our safety do. The past few years magnified that issue with the onset of the global pandemic that dismantled social supports, which are crucial to under-resourced communities. Combined with the easy access to guns, violence soared in most of these communities and in response, many cities doubled down on the old playbook: more police and more prosecutions.
That isn’t the case in Newark, though. In fact, the city, under the leadership of Mayor Ras Baraka, has been building the model for the future of public safety for nearly a decade. At its core is the principle that the people closest to the problem—residents who experience the violence—are those best equipped to identify the needs of the community and build solutions to the violence.
Baraka took office with an understanding of the persistence of racial oppression in Newark and the trauma that had been passed from generation to generation, because of violence, among Newark residents. “Violence needs to be treated as a public health issue,” Baraka has said. He developed this perspective after spending years as a community activist and a career as a teacher and then principal. This approach has driven city investment, including the historic creation of Newark’s Office of Violence Prevention & Trauma Recovery in 2020. Baraka redirected 5 percent of the public safety budget to establish the office. Director Lakeesha Eure leads that office and steers resources to the root causes of violence, while ensuring that the many organizations contributing to public safety are working in alignment.
The Newark Community Street Team (NCST) plays another pivotal role in the ecosystem. Staffed by locals, many of whom have been formerly incarcerated or entangled in the justice system, the team intervenes in high-risk situations to de-escalate violence. Trained interventionists respond to disputes, especially connected to violence. They tap into their relationships with community members and understanding of local social dynamics to reduce the temperature and prevent retaliation.
They can act as a complement to policing without sharing their own knowledge of specific incidents, which is crucial to retaining community trust. As of 2020, the team had received and responded to two or three calls from the Newark Police Department per day. NCST also acts as a pillar of support by meeting immediate community needs like escorting children to school, ensuring that they have warm coats, and coordinating car rides home to safety. Their portfolio of work has expanded to include hospital-based intervention among a host of other vital community services.
Newark also invested in The HUBB Arts & Trauma Recovery Center, located in one of Newark’s public housing projects, which provides young people with counselors and programs to express their fears and problems while also providing outlets for them to create and learn. ”We have to recognize that these kids—especially Black and brown kids—aren’t bad people,” wrote Al-Tariq Best, The HUBB’s founder. “So many have lived through racism, poverty, violence, and more, and it affects their brains.
Newarkers’ fierce love for their city translates into a sustained effort to improve it. That’s demonstrated repeatedly through Trauma to Trust, a community-led program at the nonprofit I direct, Equal Justice USA, which puts residents in the same room with police to explore trauma—especially trauma caused by policing—and build trust to reduce the harm of the policing system. Trust leads to open channels of communication that are essential to ensuring that the pieces of the ecosystem are moving forward together. NCST facilitates a biweekly public safety roundtable where community members convene with different arms of law enforcement to learn and express concerns.
These are just a handful of the components of Newark’s ecosystem that are having a profound effect on safety in the community. The city has now achieved a historic 60-year low in violence, with a 15 percent reduction in homicide victims and a number of shooting victims that fell by more than a third in 2022. This will have a positive effect on the community, creating jobs and strengthening well-being at multiple levels. In a report on Newark’s ecosystem, Chief of Police Lee Douglas reflected on the change in culture. “I can tell you…the relationships are different,” he said. “The culture is different. The way we look at the community is different. The way they look at us is different.”
What’s happening in Newark is exciting. It feels special, but it doesn’t have to be. Any city can decide to put community at the center of its public safety strategies and look to it to understand what people need to be safe and thrive. For these efforts to succeed, though, they need investment. Investments in community-centered public safety have never been higher. Baltimore has directed nearly $18 million in American Rescue Plan funds into violence prevention organizations. And California is investing more than $156 million in the coming years. That’s two examples of many. Still, these investments are minuscule compared to the money poured into policing.
Earlier this year, Tyre Nichols was beaten to death in Memphis by five police officers. And yet in the aftermath, President Biden suggested that we put more funds into the system responsible for his murder. When we invest $129 billion into policing annually, we do so at the expense of community-centered solutions that address the root causes of violence. This justice movement isn’t simply about communities taking action. It’s about our society investing in Black and brown communities, ensuring that our budget reflects the morals we purport to believe.
EJUSA is proud to partner with a coalition of federal organizations, led by the Civil Rights Corps, and a number of state-based coalitions in N.J., La., N.C., and Va. advocating for these funds. Together, we aim to create more political will toward community-centered public safety solutions and provide the funding needed to enable people and communities to flourish.
We’re battling a violence and crime narrative as old as this country, with deep roots in slavery and racial terror that tell us justice means punishment. But this story we’ve been telling ourselves about the path to public safety simply isn’t true. Our communities know what makes them safe, and it isn’t more police or incarceration. Let’s start listening to them.