Public Health for Public Safety in Washington, D.C.
There were 4,453 instances of violent crime in the District of Columbia in 2017. This seems like an incredibly high number, and it is, but it is down from 2016 where there were 5,472 instances of violent crime. The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act is one factor that might have contributed to this decline. The NEAR Act, introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie passed in March 2016, aims to prevent violence and crime, reduce incarceration, and improve police-community relations by implementing a public health focus.
The NEAR Act:
(1) Establishes the Office of Neighborhood Safety & Engagement (ONSE) to engage people who may have a high risk of being a part of or victim to a violent crime,
(2) Establishes an Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity (OVPHE) in the Department of Health to serve those who have been victims of crime,
(3) Creates a Community Crime Prevention team program within the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to help officers identify individuals with signs of mental illness or substance use disorders and connect them to social services, and
(4) Includes new police reforms to improve police-citizen relations, among other provisions.
This policy received an overwhelming amount of media attention and community support in 2016, however, due to a two-year funding gap, its benefits were slowed and hope flustered. Now, fully funded and operational as of January 2018, the NEAR Act has the potential to reduce crime and improve police-community relations in the District of Columbia. Furthermore, with grassroots organizing, community engagement, and government accountability, this movement could be the blueprint for violent crime reduction nationwide.
Like most major cities, the increased population boom, gentrification, and lack of affordable housing make D.C. a perfect incubator for crime. However, proactive, community-based action allows D.C. to grow without fear. ONSE’s Pathways program “utilizes trauma-informed care, anger management, conflict resolution, and transformative mentoring” as its mechanisms for reform. Safer Stronger DC, an organization that connects individuals to programs and organizations, is responsible for the community-based delivery of services. Both organizations are also working with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS)’ Credible Messenger program to specifically address youth concerns. In the previous six months, ONSE has begun implementing a violence intervention and prevention strategy, expanding the Community Stabilization Protocol to include victims of non-fatal shooting and stabbings, creating standardized training for government and non-government agencies in violence intervention and prevention, and ramped up their data collection efforts all as required by the NEAR Act.
NEAR and FAR
All progress is to be commended. Addressing violence as a public health issue is critical in the process of eliminating it. However, policymakers must also be intentional about addressing root causes. High unemployment rates, decreased access to economic opportunities, youth and adult homelessness, barriers to professional mental health care, and substance abuse disorders can all lead to crimes of opportunity and violence. One praise is that DYRS has programming to address juvenile offenders and has been accomplishing this successfully. Several of DYRS’ youth have reported positive benefits from the interventions. One critique is that social workers are supposed to work with MPD in assisting officers with individuals who may be experiencing a mental health crisis at the moment of arrest. MPD has not hired enough social workers to meet this need. Instead, they've onboarded more police. One solution, as provisionally addressed in the NEAR Act, is better data collection, analysis, and disclosure. The anecdotal information provides individual stories, but raw data gives us a complete picture. With greater transparency, policymakers, community organizers, and residents can work together more efficiently. With greater transparency, the DC government will realize that increasing the number of police is not the answer to crime reduction.
Fortunately, where government falls short either in provision or inclusivity community organizers take the baton and sprint. The Stop Police Terror Project (SPTP) is an organization in the Washington D.C. area that works to oppose police abuses and also to build community-led peacekeeping efforts to empower oppressed residents to deal with their own security concerns. Their work has been crucial to funding the NEAR Act and challenging the structures that perpetuate violence. SPTP is leading the effort to address root causes. They stand on these principles:
- Militarized Policing must end immediately.
- Communities should be empowered to secure themselves.
- As long as the police are an institution, there must be clear accountability mechanisms in the hands of the people.
- The issue of militarized policing and mass incarceration are military solutions to the social problems in oppressed communities, which is a form of social control. As such critiquing capitalism is a necessary part of our movement.
- We are opposed to patriarchy and all racism, bigotry, homophobia, and transphobia.
- Our movement is broad and unity is important. We believe in exploring with all who wish to partner the issue of limited unity around police terror but our basic point of unity with all forces is a forthright recognition of the importance of LGBTQ and Women freedom fighters to at all times be respected and safe.
Violence and crime have a deleterious impact on any society. It is a difficult undertaking for policymakers to develop strategies that decrease opportunities for crime. But utilizing a community-based approach gives residents a chance to take an active role in keeping their neighborhoods safe, while also helping other people out of circumstances that might lead them to crime and violence. The more communities come together to help each other, the better off everyone will be. The prospects of the NEAR Act include a DC that will be able to meet everyone’s needs through government agencies and community organizations. If effective, this model can be built out nationwide.
If you'd like to learn more about the Stop Police Terror Project please visit their website here.