In 2008, at the height of the recession, the staff at Nuestra Communidad Development Corporation began to notice a pattern. As homes in their Roxbury, MA neighborhood became foreclosed and abandoned, neighbors began to increasingly complain about violent and criminal activities in or near the properties. They also felt that the police were not helping.
“People were angry. They felt like the police weren’t doing enough, that they didn’t care.” said Monica Dean, Director of Community Organizing and Resident Services. “Neighbors accepted activities like prostitution as the norm because it wasn’t being addressed. They would call and nothing would happen”
Public health research has shown that fear of crime in a neighborhood has a negative impact on mental health and overall wellbeing, even if people are not directly affected by the crime. Dean, who lives in the neighborhood, noted how crime affected her:
“Public safety just has a huge impact on your health and overall wellbeing. If you live in an environment that is safe, you are happy, you are comfortable, you’re not stressed.” said Dean, “You’re not planning your day around how to protect yourself.”
To confront the safety issues in the neighborhood, Nuestra CDC developed its Community Safety Initiative (http://nuestracdc.org/community-safety-initiative). The initiative identified problem areas, redeveloped abandoned property and created coalitions of residents, police and other nonprofit organizations to address safety issues.
Nuestra CDC’s approach is one that has worked across the country. As addressed in Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky’s Building Our Way out of Crime: The Transformative Power of Police-Community Partnerships, communities in Charlotte, NC, Minneapolis, MN and Providence, RI have reduced crime and violence through similar approaches of addressing blight and creating community-police partnerships.
While these partnerships can be lasting and productive means to ensure safe communities, they can also be difficult to begin and navigate. There are some best practices, many of which Nuestra used along the way:
Use data to inform approach
Nuestra CDC’s first step was to work with the police and use their crime data to create a map of where crime was taking place in the community.
“Sure enough there was a connection between the vacant property and the drug dealing and prostitution that was going on” said David Price, Executive Director.
Focus on redevelopment in problem areas
After the mapping exercise, Nuestra CDC immediately filed code violations with the city to secure and clean up vacant buildings. They then bought some of the properties and worked to place residents into them. They began to have regular meetings where the police and community members would discuss problem properties in the area and create joint plans to address them. They also did larger multifamily development projects on vacant land in the area, where crime had been taking place even before the recession.
Take time to cultivate lasting relationships
Nuestra had to forge stronger relationships between the police and their organization as well as between the police and the broader community.
“One of the first things to do as a CDC is to get to know your local precinct captain at the police station.” said Price, “Find someone who understands community policing”
Nuestra brought their police officer partners to trainings on crime prevention provided by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NeighborWorks. Attending the trainings together allowed the organization and police department to get to know one another and also to make sure both were learning the same skills and approaches to community safety.
To facilitate relationships between police and community members, they organized weekly meetings between to discuss local crime, and also organized block parties to give police officers opportunities to get to know residents and build trust. Building mutual trust throughout the neighborhood made it easier for community members to call the police during an incident.
Once Nuestra had built up partnerships between residents and the police, they noticed that an important demographic was missing from their program: youth. Teenagers were the most likely to engage in gun violence in the neighborhood.
Nuestra did not have capacity as an organization to engage local youth, but they knew that Teen Empowerment, another Boston based organization, specialized in it. Nuestra provided one of their underutilized community rooms to Teen Empowerment and helped them expand their programs into the neighborhood.
Since working with Teen Empowerment, Nuestra has seen an increase in teen volunteers at their events. By getting to know young people, they have been able to tap into networks of youth and reach out to those engaging in criminal and violent activities. This year, Nuestra had the highest level of attendance ever for their youth peace march (shown in picture)
Now the recession is mostly over and crime levels have gone down, but the Community Safety Initiative still thrives. The partnerships that were developed have remained strong and are now working towards new challenges.
“Now that we’ve brought crime down, what neighbors really want to do is change the image of the neighborhood.” said David Price, “We have shifted our focus from preventing crime to neighborhood beautification by improving storefronts or adding new street art.”
While issues of violence and crime in any community will differ based on local circumstances, the approach of forging partnerships between police, community developers and residents, using data and redeveloping neighborhoods is one that is adaptable to every community. As Nuestra CDC has also shown, the program can evolve to tackling new challenges as they emerge, creating truly resilient and thriving communities.
The Mel King Institute offered a training, Community Safety Seminar: Safe Streets, Sound Neighborhoods on September 21st with the Local Support Initiatives Corporation. Check out the storify on the training.