Connecting Sustainability and Public Safety

City Reduces Crime through Community Engagement

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Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 1:09 pm

MADISON, Wis. -- When asked to explain the connection between social sustainability and public safety, Madison Police Chief Nobel Wray was stumped.

The unusual connection took him back to one of his first assignments, in what was at the time the most dangerous neighborhood in Wisconsin’s capital city. In 1987, Wray was assigned to the Simpson-Broadway neighborhood, an area with the city’s highest percentage of children ages 12 to 21, and about as many homicides as in the rest of Madison’s neighborhoods combined.

Wray was stationed there with the task of reducing the crime rate in the neighborhood.

“My responsibility was to go out there and change things. They assigned me as one individual officer to be a catalyst for change,” Chief Wray explained at a quarterly Sustainable Business Network breakfast meeting hosted last week by Sustain Dane, a regional sustainability organization based in Dane County, Wis.

At the beginning of his assignment, Wray did just that: he took sole responsibility for changing the neighborhood. He organized a local computer lab, took kids fishing with the help of fellow officers, created a bike program, and more. After months of attempting to single-handedly make the neighborhood better and more sustainable, Wray questioned his progress.

“One day I thought for a moment, what am I actually doing for this neighborhood? If I’m doing the computer lab, if I’m taking kids fishing, if I’m taking kids biking, is there someone else that should be doing this that isn’t? And in some respects am I doing more harm than good in the long run?”

Fearing he wasn’t using the neighborhood’s strengths to its full potential, Wray began to look at his position as a neighborhood police officer differently. He realized that a neighborhood couldn’t rely on a single police officer to make long-term improvements. He needed to work with the neighborhood as a whole, bringing interested parties together to ensure long-term sustainability.

It was then that Wray and the Madison Police Department began taking a different approach to crime in habitually bad neighborhoods. Instead of focusing on single events, the Madison Police Department focused their efforts on what they refer to as community policing, a philosophy that embraces problem solving as a way to deal with crime and disorder, while focusing less on specific incidents.

The method the Madison Police Department began using was created by Herman Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who in 1979, called for a shift in policing tactics, encouraging officers to identify and deal with problems at the community level, instead of focusing on reactive, incident-driven policing.

“Normally what we did was say, ‘Well, there are several burglaries happening and they’re happening at a similar location, so let’s focus on those problems and deal with them,’” Wray explained. “What we did instead was we took that problem solving approach and applied it to an entire neighborhood and we called it Macro Problem Solving.”

Utilizing a common macro problem solving approach called SARA – scanning, analysis, response and assessment – and molding it to fit the needs of the city, the Madison PD developed a five-phase process dedicated to making Madison’s highest profile neighborhoods safer and more sustainable.

The first phase, or the information and communication phase, gives the assigned neighborhood officer the time to get to know the community. They get to know the neighborhood from the neighborhood perspective, versus from an outsider’s point of view. This initial phase is how the Madison PD determines why a neighborhood has such high calls for service. It is in this phase that they find out what the problems are.

Phase two focuses on problem analysis. Data that is collected during phase one is used to determine the root of neighborhood issues.

“When I went out to my neighborhood, I was dealing with one of the highest percentages of young people in a densely populated area with nowhere to go, and no place where people could connect with each other,” Wray said. “From the outside looking in, the community was seeing this neighborhood as having gang problems, drug dealing, and those things were true, but every community meeting that I went to, there were two issues: speeding and what were we going to do with these kids – that’s what that community thought from the inside out.”

Identifying the causes of disturbances within a neighborhood gives police a specific window into how to fix, or improve issues in hot-spot areas. Without identifying the root causes, phase three, the empowerment and resilience phase, would not be successful.

According to Wray, phase three was where he had his “ah-ha” moment – the moment he began to realize that without engaging the community in improving their neighborhood, long-term success would be nearly impossible.

“We learned right away that if [residents] didn’t believe they could have an impact in their neighborhood you would not get them involved. What happens time and time again is you’ll have a community meeting and if that meeting is not focused on something that someone can do directly, they don’t get engaged. It’s amazing,” Wray said.

“We tried to structure things so that people could see that they were having an impact for the long-term. We referred to it as the strategy of ‘teaching them to fish’ – if I’m doing it and I continue to do it, then they will expect that we will continue to do it…but the goal is to teach them to fish so that they do it for themselves for long-term sustainability.”

After empowering neighborhoods and showing residents that they are capable of changing the long-term quality of life in their community, the Madison PD starts phase four, the stabilization phase. Stabilizing the neighborhood is centered on identifying key stakeholders, key residents that care deeply about the future of their community. Once those people have been identified, the neighborhood officer helps connect them with community resources and support to ensure their success.

By establishing the success of community stakeholders, Wray believes the Madison PD is ensuring the success and sustainability of a majority of Madison’s neighborhoods.

“People in the neighborhood have to believe that they have the capacity for change. If they don’t believe that, then there’s a reliance on external forces to improve the quality of life,” Wray explained. “We have never assigned a neighborhood officer to a geographic area where we have had an active and involved neighborhood association. The work that people do at the ground level when they start to believe in their area – that collective efficacy – it makes a big difference. It is the difference.”

The last and final phase of Madison’s five-phase macro problem solving technique is the maintenance and monitoring phase. During the final phase, resources are reduced as the neighborhood begins to sustain itself. By going through the first four phases, crime decreases, community involvement increases, and the need for neighborhood officers is all but eliminated.

That being said, these neighborhoods have a complicated history, tensions flair, and occasionally a neighborhood officer has to return to ensure that the neighborhood is stable and sustainable. Still, occasional flair-ups greatly reduce the long-term burden on the police department’s resources, as well as the burden on the livelihoods of Madison residents.

Twenty-eight years after joining the Madison PD, Chief Wray can attest to the ongoing success of the model. “Vera court, Simpson-Broadway, Willy Street, Mifflin Street, Truax, Allied, Northport, Triangle Neighborhood, all of these neighborhoods are better off than they were 20 years ago because of the sustained, long-term efforts of the Madison Police Department,” he said.

The Madison PD prides itself on making this connection between social sustainability and public safety, Wray said, and that has gained the attention and recognition of organizations like Sustain Dane.

"The Sustainable Business Network is a forum for business leaders in the Madison area to explore social and environmentally responsible business practices," Jessie Lerner, Sustain Dane's Interim Executive Director explained. "This growing membership-based network brings together a diverse group of business leaders that care deeply about people, the planet, and profit. The Madison Police Department is a great example of an organization that embeds social sustainability in its approach to make Madison a safe and healthy city,” she said.

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