Centers & Institute

The Keys to Fixing a Divided City’s Flawed Approach to Public Safety

Dan Cooper, Ph.D., is the executive director for Adler University’s Center for Equitable Cities. He has spent more than a decade working with community-based organizations and coalitions on issues including violence prevention, youth development, housing, economic development, program evaluation, and strategic planning. 

What happens when the primary investments in a community are policing and incarceration rather than human and community development?

That is among the many questions that co-author Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and I sought to answer when writing our newly published book, The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City. In it, we combine qualitative narratives and secondary data to make the case that our decades-long addiction to punishment has created worse-off, less safe urban neighborhoods of color. Many understand that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, and black people in particular.

But what’s often lost is just how starkly concentrated this incarceration is in urban neighborhoods. The scale of punishment in Chicago’s Austin community and other West Side neighborhoods is shocking compared to that of their white counterparts. At any given time, the number of Austin residents behind bars totals more than the population of several small countries combined. Incarceration rates on Chicago’s West Side are ten times that of Russia (442 per 100,000), which is among the world’s other top imprisoners.

Whenever violence rates increase — like they did in 2016 — we clamor for more law enforcement solutions. Why? Because many people believe that more punishment leads to more safety, which is one of the greatest myths of the last 40 years. But this wasn’t always the case. At one time, we did consider poverty to be at the root of crime and public safety challenges.

However, starting with Nixon, there was a concerted effort to flip this order (largely for political purposes): If society labels crime as the cause of poverty, we can justify locking people up at alarming rates and we don’t have to invest in alleviating poverty. That’s when successive administrations played to people’s fear of “the other” and campaigned for law enforcement solutions.

The reality is that the benefits of punishment weaken over time and even start to reverse — especially in places where punishment is concentrated. When we remove parents from households en masse, those absences affect the next generation of residents. They impact everything from parenting, to school performance, to household stability.

As a society, we frequently talk about how important families are to the lives of both young people and neighborhoods. Yet, we destroy families when we remove a parent from a household, and then wonder why our youth are disconnected and community violence is high. If we continue to see law enforcement solutions as ideal answers to these problems, we will never solve the deeply rooted factors driving poverty and youth violence.

While these are not new insights to those living on the West Side, they remain foreign to most Americans who reside outside of such impacted places. Hollon and I believe it’s urgent to bring these issues to light.

Simply put: We must do more than just change broken laws to fix our flawed approach to public safety. We have to create new laws that are both innovative and equitable. We need to reinvest in the communities that have been most affected by concentrated incarceration. We must address the problems that people in those communities are facing — whether unemployment, mental illness or housing instability. And we can do this by repurposing state funds away from corrections and into a new Marshall Plan that would seed the necessary human and community development goals. We cannot continue to ignore the neighborhood conditions that allow violence to thrive. Now is the time to envision a more equitable future for our south and west side neighborhoods.