Connecting state and local government leaders
City and county leaders recently gathered to share their concerns about violent and other crimes and the successful solutions to these issues they are employing.
Violent and other crime continues to plague many cities and counties nationwide. Government officials recently gathered at The NewDEAL’s annual leaders conference to discuss these issues and solutions to the problems, including employing federal relief funds, boosting community involvement and decreasing the number of false arrests.
Here are some of the ways Washington D.C., St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio are working on improving public safety in their communities:
At the City Summit Event, Marcus Ellis, chief of staff at the Safer, Stronger D.C. Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, spoke about reimagining public safety and what that could look like for his city.
ONSE addresses violence in Washington D.C., while assisting families dealing with the grief and trauma caused by these occurrences. Its core values are social justice, equity, youth voice, collaboration and innovation.
Ellis’ department partners with Cities United, whose mission is working with cities, communities and young leaders. Cities United is a national network of mayors committed to reducing the epidemic of homicides and shootings nationally among African American men and boys ages 14 to 24 by 50% by 2024.
"We try to solve this problem too often without having the right people at the table, and that has included eliminating the youth voice," Ellis said during remarks at The NewDEAL conference. "So, we have a keen focus on making sure that they are not just at the table but have a voice."
According to Ellis, young Black men and boys are most impacted by community violence and the rate of fatal and nonfatal violence is higher for young Black males.
“This is why we focus on young Black men and boys, because they are most impacted by community violence, and they live in the communities that carry the heaviest burdens," Ellis added. "We've noticed that the numbers continue to rise even during a pandemic because when you talk about a population that is growing up in poverty, growing up without fair opportunities, growing up with systemic injustices, a pandemic is not going to slow down homicides."
Ellis presented three solutions to combat these problems. The solutions are:
- Interrupt the cycle of community violence. Addressing potential problems before they arise.
- Dismantle systems of inequity.
- Invest in the sustainability of new administrative and operational activities. For example, when Ellis first began his job working with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the department only had a $2.6 million budget. Four years later, the budget is $28 million.
"We are committed to being a part of that change," He said. "We absolutely need the help of everyone in this room and beyond."
Tishaura Jones is the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis. Jones is also the first mayor in over 20 years to be born, raised and still live in a predominantly Black neighborhood in the city.
Speaking at the summit, Jones opened with the issues revolving around gun violence, specifically, her personal experiences. Jones explained that “many nights, my son and I fall asleep to the lullaby of gunshots in the distance,” and how her son was almost a victim of gun violence twice in the past five years.
She also shared how one of her relatives died this summer, a 27-year-old pregnant woman who was “at the wrong place at the wrong time” and fell victim to gun violence.
“It's personal for me, and it's personal for people across St. Louis,” Jones said. “And that's why reimagining public safety is my top priority as mayor. Maintaining the status quo cannot continue to govern, and we have to be innovative in our approach to keep people safe.”
Jones said her goal to combat gun violence and other issues in St. Louis is simple, and it’s for the city to win again.
"I want residents to thrive regardless of the color of their skin, who they love or how they worship," Jones added. "Their ZIP code should not dictate their quality of life or their opportunity so I'm working to right historical wrongs that have left entire neighborhoods and entire parts of our city disinvested and discouraged for decades, and that's a vision that I'm using as I try to improve public safety in St. Louis."
To combat St. Louis’s violence problems, Jones presented three public safety principles that her staff is using to guide their discussions. The three principles are:
- Using “smart-on-crime” strategies to ensure that they can prevent and address crime when it occurs. They prioritize innovation to achieve better outcomes and ensure that the residents and visitors are physically safe.
- Prioritizing healthy communities and expanding the intersection between health care and gun violence. St. Louis is also in the process of declaring gun violence as a public health crisis.
- Employing responsive governing to the people closest to the problem or solution. Jones said it's the government’s responsibility to listen and be accountable for the communities’ concerns, and that they are the biggest partners in addressing public safety.
Also, according to the mayor, St. Louis is part of a cohort of about 16 cities working with the White House Community Violence Intervention. St. Louis also used American Rescue Plan Act funds for community violence intervention programs.
Furthermore, Jones said the city is putting money into a deterrence program called Cure Violence Global and other deterrence programs to address crime as it happens at the root cause, and interrupting violence before it starts.
Zach Klein is the independently elected Columbus, Ohio city attorney who also spoke at the summit event. Klein is a prosecutor with about 177 employees—half who are in the criminal division. His specific jurisdiction is misdemeanor crimes occurring in Columbus, with about 110,000 cases a year. This includes everything from traffic to domestic violence.
"When I ran for Columbus city attorney, I started with the premise of how we can rethink and reform the criminal justice system, and what is directly in my control," Klein said. "I believe in the adage of if you do the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results—that's been the criminal justice system in our country for decades. We've seen the same results repeatedly without any significant change for not only the victims that are victimized but also the actual true community safety that we seek to preserve and protect."
Some of the reforms Klein made that were within his control are:
- Stopped the prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession in Columbus, even though possession is still illegal under the Ohio revised code. Klein had to repeatedly tell police to stop bringing him those cases, because he was not doing them anymore.
- Eliminated cash bail for all nonviolent misdemeanors.
- Worked with the police, created a policy that favors summons over arrest for nonviolent misdemeanors so the people are not filling up jails for these crime.
- Brought charging decisions away from police and house that he or his team reviewed before charging someone. This is to ensure the facts are tight and the person fits the crime that way overcharging is not a problem.
Klein also created a precharge diversion program that identifies and treats the root reasons of crime.
"We talk a lot about drug addiction and mental health, but what makes our program unique is we partner with a third-party health care organization that then does a 32 question and in-depth screening of the defendant that asks about drug addiction and mental health, but also asks about transportation, food insecurity, housing and employment," he said. "And then each individual defendant gets a tailored plan specific to his or her needs as part of the diversion program."
According to Klein, about 170 people have gone through the program during the past two and a half years, with one-year suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the program began, only six people who went through the program were repeat offenders.
"There isn't a criminal justice program in the country that is this successful," he said. "I'm proud of the work we've done in that space, and I really believe the future of criminal justice is taking the time and developing plans that are specific to individuals to break that cycle of criminality."
Andre Claudio is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.