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THE HILL: To Keep People Safe, Congress Should Invest in What Communities Need

To keep people safe, Congress should invest in what communities need

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Over these last few months, some lawmakers have been clamoring to pass new “public safety” bills that would pour more resources into police departments nationwide. These lawmakers point to crime rates and fears that violence is increasing. At almost no point, though, have we heard anyone ask a basic question: If our goal is to keep families and communities safe, will these investments work? And what do communities actually want?

Last week, researchers at the Brookings Institution, the Vera Institute for Justice, Civil Rights Corps and Color Of Change released an evidence-based policy blueprint to demonstrate what investments most effectively prevent violence and harm. Its key insight is simple: just as in public health, where prevention is our most impactful way to keep people healthy, proactive investments in the “social determinants of safety” are our most effective way to keep individuals, families, and communities safe. It’s time that our policies reflect this reality.

Since Congress passed its infamous 1994 Crime Bill three decades ago, lawmakers have poured resources into the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and similar funding programs. Over these past 25 years, state and local police have received more than $14 billion in almost wholly unaccountable COPS dollars. Last year, COPS received more than double what it received a decade earlier. And, just a month ago, COPS received another $100 million through the Safer Communities Act.

Where have these billions gotten us? Nowhere. Despite leading all countries in criminalization and incarceration, the U.S. is no safer than peer nations. Our rate of gun violence is significantly higher than international counterparts. Our epidemic of mass shootings remain a uniquely American tragedy. Black and brown communities are losing loved ones by the hands of police officers. And our kids are suffering a mental health crisis of devastating proportions.

Additional investments in policing funding will not address these issues or deliver safety for all communities. By contrast, we have overwhelming evidence about what works: proactive investments in public health and prevention, economic opportunity and housing security, youth development and education, built environment and community spaces, as well as institutional transformations to make these investments sustainable.

Turning first to public health, the link between treatment, health care access, and safety is extremely clear, both because health directly impacts safety and because investments in mental health treatmentaddiction services, and health care access have been shown to reduce violence and harm significantly. Programs of violence prevention — including Cure ViolenceAdvance Peace and hospital-based peer interventions — have helped reduce gun homicides, sometimes by approximately 20 percent. And programs of non-carceral crisis response, besides successfully diverting calls that otherwise would have triggered a police response, have been shown to help reduce low-level crimes.

Investments in housing, employment and financial security have proven similarly effective. Increasing youth employment, such as through summer jobs, has reduced violent crime by as much as 43 percent while expanding rental accessreducing socioeconomic segregationreducing foreclosures and funding structural repairs have all reduced violence and crime by significant amounts.

Investments in youth, particularly youth violence preventionearly childhood education and wraparound school services, are some of our most long-term and impactful investments. And investments into neighborhood spaces and community organizations, such as through fixing abandoned buildingsincreasing green spacesimproving lightingfunding neighborhood projects and otherwise centering community leadership are critical to any comprehensive strategy.

This evidence isn’t just a summary of existing research; it’s a blueprint that federal policymakers can use to make comprehensive, high-impact investments in what we know works. And, luckily, the evidence leads us to many solutions that already exist, including additional funding for current programs and concrete ideas for new bills. Moreover, this evidence suggests policy solutions that will keep our communities safer overall — by preventing violence and harm before they happen — while saving billions of dollars. Indeed, studies evaluating crime prevention have generally found that benefits far outweigh costs.

Congress should enact a legislative agenda that makes bold, historic investments in safety. But this package should reflect what evidence says, not policies that misdirect taxpayer resources and make our families less safe. This fall and next year, we ask federal lawmakers to finally get safety right. And, for those elected leaders who ultimately prioritize rhetoric over evidence, we demand accountability for neglecting their most profound obligation — creating change that will actually keep their constituents safe.

Sakira Cook is the co-interim vice president at Color of Change.

Thea Sebastian is the director of policy at Civil Rights Corps and director of the Futures Collaborative.

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