The fight against COVID-19 has played out against a backdrop of surging gun violence and a reckoning with racism and police brutality. Now, as a vaccine campaign begins to inoculate the country against the coronavirus, a nationwide taskforce of local public officials, including one from West Philadelphia, are looking to better protect their communities from the spread of violence with innovative new policies that would reimagine public safety in America.
The National League of Cities, an organization dedicated to helping local leaders improve their communities, announced the launch of the Taskforce on Reimagining Public Safety in February. The NLC invited on to the taskforce a group of 25 public officials from across the country, including West Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. Over the course of the next few months, the taskforce will work to craft policy recommendations designed to reduce police brutality and improve public safety.
Gauthier said that she believed the taskforce was coming at a critical time for Philadelphia. She said that there was a vital need for action in response to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. – a Black man who was shot and killed by police in West Philadelphia last October – and a need to respond to the city’s unrelenting gun violence.
“We do not have the appropriate resources to support particularly people in Black and brown neighborhoods to get the care and the empathy that they need,” Gauthier said.“And while for years we’ve dealt with [gun violence] with a law-enforcement response, I think we need to move much further into the area of addressing gun violence as a public health crisis and emergency.”
Kirby Gaherty, the NLC program manager for justice reform and youth engagement, said that protests against police brutality over the summer motivated the launch of the taskforce. She said the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the subsequent racial justice movement that swept across America and the world in his memory, made NLC officials decide to promote public safety reform that was less reliant on policing.
“This summer we really realized we needed to do more to really support cities more holistically thinking about public safety,” Gaherty said.“We decided that this was something that was long overdue and the things that we saw happening in cities drove us to bring together this taskforce of local elected officials.”
“The hope is that this group can create a twenty-first century public safety agenda for America’s cities,” she added.
Gaherty also cited the increase in shootings and murders in large cities over the past year, as well as the increase in domestic violence in municipalities of all sizes. She emphasized that reducing violence would be complemented by efforts to reduce police brutality.
“Violence is a priority for the taskforce,” Gaherty said. “It’s definitely something that we are prioritizing in our report, and the relationship between community violence and police violence is another thing that’s come up a few times as well.”
To confront these issues, the NLC taskforce will embrace diverse perspectives and bipartisan dialogue, Gaherty said. Signifying this approach, the taskforce is being cochaired by Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka, a Democrat, and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican. According to an NLC press release, officials were selected to the taskforce on the basis of “their demonstrated commitment in reimagining public safety in their communities,” and in order to “help ensure representation from a wide range of viewpoints, locations and community sizes.”
“Each taskforce member in some way has taken a step toward reimagining public safety whether that’s on a police reform standpoint or from a larger, really reimaging their public safety system standpoint,” Gaherty said. “It’s really just making sure we have diverse perspectives on the issue, but commitment from each of the taskforce members to work on this in some way.”
Academic institutions and think tanks, including the Vera Institute of Justice, the Urban Institute, Cities United, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York, will work with the taskforce to help members explore different avenues of reform.
Daniela Gilbert, the Director of the Policing Program at the Vera Institute, said the taskforce could help explore alternate ways and methods of preventing violence aside from policing. In an emailed statement to the UC Review, Gilbert said that she believed that some emergencies should be dealt with by civilian rapid-response teams.
“We over rely on law enforcement to deliver public safety and must recognize that our current investments and systems are inadequate in producing public safety,” Gilbert said. “Calls that don’t require a law enforcement response ought to be diverted to behavioral health responders, EMTs, or other civilian responders.”
A Philadelphia program featuring rapid-response mental health professionals was announced by the city in October. Staffers from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services are to help monitor 911 emergency calls and identify “behavioral health crisis” situations. The program also pilots a “co-responder” initiative, where both police and mental health professionals respond to an emergency. After the killing of Wallace – whose shooting by police came during a mental health crisis he was experiencing – the implementation of the program was expanded and accelerated.
Gilbert indicated in her email to the UC Review that she was hoping that local governments would start implementing crisis response programs that would avoid dispatching police to certain kinds of emergencies altogether.
“Calls that don’t require a law enforcement response ought to be diverted to behavioral health responders, EMTs, or other civilian responders,” Gilbert said. “The co-responder model, as a sole alternative, does not reduce police involvement in handling crisis calls.”
Jesse Jannetta, a senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, said the taskforce could help find ways to hold police more accountable and improve police-community relations – something he has previously studied in six cities across the United States. He said improving that relationship is crucial to making policing and public safety efforts more effective.
“Without functional and effective relations and trust between police and communities, it is extremely difficult to do effective safety or anti-violence work,” Jannetta said. “And consistently across the six cities, the area where trust and confidence in the police was lowest in those neighborhoods was around whether the police department held officers accountable for wrong and inappropriate conduct in the community.”
Jannetta said there was also a need to deploy non-police “violence interrupters,” – people with good relationship with the community and who can intervene in people’s lives and steer them away from violence – similar to the work of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, or PAAN.
“There’s been a real expansion both of knowledge and practice around how anti-violence work can look that doesn’t involve traditional criminal justice actors, uniformed police officers, and so on,” Jannetta said. “This is the world of people who are doing violence interruption, conflict mediation, engagement with people at high risk of shooting and being shot.”
Jannetta said that having trustworthy figures in the community intervene could help stop one instance of violence from escalating into a sequence of shootings.
“A lot of gun violence in particular is related to cycles of retaliation,” Jannetta said. “This is where the violence interruption comes in, people who have trusted relationships with people who might be in that situation and might be able to find ways to calm that situation down.”
Jannetta said that removing barriers to social services could contribute to these violence-interruption efforts. Having studied prison reentry, Jannetta said that some of the programs designed to help people recently released from prison reenter non-prison society could help other people left susceptible to violence.
“A lot of communities have done great work building a service infrastructure in way of engaging with people coming back from prison, which is really important,” Jannetta said. “You can have a grant to work with people who are coming back from prison, and then you’ve got a person right next to them who’s got the same needs and a lot of the same concerns from a community perspective, but because they’re not in that situation, you’re not able to serve them.”
Generally, Jannetta emphasized the need to preempt violence by connecting communities with services.
“I think the justice system when it engages in solving problems, it tends to be on a much more reactive footing, a lot of it is after the fact, attempting to solve, arrest, adjudicate, and I think a lot of this relational work has a way of being proactive,” Jannetta said.
Gilbert, from the Vera Institute, recognized the need to act proactively to prevent an outbreak of violence.
“Like an epidemic, gun violence concentrates and spreads socially, and efforts to address violence must focus on supporting the small number of people who are at highest risk of involvement,” Gilbert said.
Gauthier said she hoped the taskforce could help spur people in Philadelphia to treat police brutality and gun violence as an emergency on par with the coronavirus pandemic. She said, for example, that it might be a good idea for private entities to help respond, similar to how Comcast worked with the city to expand internet access as the pandemic forced Philadelphia school children to learn from home.
“That’s how Philadelphia needs to be approaching this work in my opinion, by raising the level of priority of this problem, by mobilizing our own city agencies as well as the private sector to help solve the problem,” Gauthier said. “I want to see us to be more willing to invest significant resources in creative ways that can really get at some of the root causes.”
In September, Gauthier led City Council in adopting a resolution calling on Mayor Jim Kenney to declare gun violence a city emergency. In her interview with the UC Review, Gauthier said that the city should consider giving regular briefings about gun violence, similar to how it has done for COVID-19.
“Gun violence is also a public health crisis and we’re at a point, it’s just bad,” Gauthier said. “It’s just as much of a public health emergency as COVID is and I would like to see our city approach it in the same way.”
Soon after the councilmember’s interview, Kenney announced that the city would hold regular public briefings on the gun violence crisis to discuss “the strategies underway to address this public health crisis and create safe, healthy communities.”
And new strategies are urgently needed. Mirroring a nationwide trend of increased violence during the pandemic, Philadelphia saw 499 murders in 2020, the second highest total on record dating back to 1960 and only ranking behind the city’s homicide total in 1990. At press time, there were 100 murders recorded in Philadelphia so far for 2021, which, according to the Philadelphia Police Department, amounts to a 32% increase in murders over this time last year.
Gauthier said that despite this violence, she is hopeful that the taskforce can help introduce new ideas that will empower the people of Philadelphia to help reform policing and public safety in their city.
“I think we need to do better as a city at supporting our communities through this,” Gauthier said. “People deserve to be heard and I encourage them to keep raising their voices in that way.”