The term “public safety” often elicits images of firetrucks, police cars, and ambulances. We tend to think it is the first responders who keep the public safe. While they certainly do play a role, this public safety picture is incomplete—or perhaps, wholly inaccurate.

Emerging is a new definition of public safety that is evidence-based and human-centric. It requires that we consider the impact insecurity—such as income insecurity, health insecurity, and food insecurity—has on the safety of people and communities.

There is no better time to reconsider public safety than now, as we face the dual crises of a global pandemic and the subsequent economic devastation. Proponents of the new public safety movement suggest we rethink our approach to public safety by first flipping the narrative around what public safety means. 

Zach Norris is a lawyer, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and co-founder of Restore Oakland and Justice for Families. He is also the author of We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just and Inclusive Communities, released earlier this year. Norris argues it’s time we redefine public safety in a way that keeps the entire public safe and thriving. “There is a lie about safety that threatens our democracy,” says Norris. “The lie is that ‘he’ keeps us safe.”

“He,” Norris clarifies, is one person such as the president, or one organization such as the criminal justice system, that claims responsibility for keeping our community safe. It’s an “us vs. them” narrative that separates and posits groups against one another by calming that an authority figure is needed to keep one group of people (the good guys) safe from another group (the bad guys).

Norris argues this definition of public safety erodes communities when actual public safety should build them up. He encourages a shift from a “framework of fear” to a “culture of care.” In his book, Norris discusses four critical elements of the framework of fear deprivation, suspicion, punishment, and isolation that we’ve built into our society.

“We’ve deprived ourselves, some more than others, of the collective power of cooperation to ensure the well-being of all members of a community,” Norris told a group of justice reformers in a webinar in February. Instead, he argues, we prioritize self-reliance over caring for one another. “We forget that the social safety net has safety right in the middle.”

Norris offers a care model, in contrast to the fear-based model, that works to build secure, just, and inclusive communities. The care model also includes accountability when there is wrongdoing but shifts that accountability from ineffective punitive responses to evidence-based restorative ones.

“A culture of care prevents many harms from happening in the first place by investing in the social safety net (resources), by building our capacity to relate to one another across difference (relationships), and by increasing our sense of ‘skin in the game’ with more vibrant engagement one every level, within neighborhoods, and within our democracy and society (participation).”

Norris calls for the dismantling of our mentality of “us vs. them”: “By bridging the divides and building relationships with one another, we can dedicate ourselves to strategic, smart investments—meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being, like health care and housing, education, and living-wage jobs. This is where real safety begins.”

Norris isn’t alone in his fight for safer, more inclusive communities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren put forth a plan for “improving public safety through “radical reforms that reduce mass incarceration and strengthen families” as a crucial pillar of her platform for the presidential nomination.

“We cannot achieve [public safety] by nibbling around the edges—we need to tackle the problem at its roots. That means implementing a set of bold, structural changes at all levels of government,” Warren recently wrote.

Warren believes this starts with changing how we talk about public safety. To her, public safety means providing:

  • every opportunity for all our kids to get a good education and stay in school

  • safe, affordable housing that keeps families together and off the streets

  • violence intervention programs that divert young people from criminal activity, before the police become involved

  • policies that recognize the humanity of trans people and other LGBTQ+ Americans and keep them safe from violence

  • accessible mental health services and treatment for addiction

“It is a false choice to suggest a tradeoff between safety and mass incarceration. By spending our budgets not on imprisonment but on community services that lift people up, we’ll decarcerate and make our communities safer,” Warren explained in her public release of the platform.  

There is hard work being done at the local level that reflects Norris and Warren’s national vision. “The Amos Project in Hamilton County, Ohio, has been working to push county-level policymakers to introduce reforms that create safe communities.

“We are working to create a community that investments in families and communities and reimages our whole criminal justice system,” says Paul Graham, executive director of the Amos Project. “The last four weeks have been some of the deadliest we’ve seen [with Cincinnati gun violence]. When there is massive amounts of insecurity, when we are not actually helping people be safe, which includes their mental health, economic health, their physical health, there is volatility. There is recklessness and dangerousness. Until we take a real big picture look about what families need to be healthy, happy, and prosperous, we will continue to have gun violence.”

The Amos team advocates for investments in schools, trauma-informed care, mental health, physical health, income support, and childcare. “Things that families can actually use to be healthy,” says Graham.

“What we are asking for is a de-vesting in prisons and jails and investing in communities. This is what really matters. This is what we are going to hold anyone accountable to regardless of what happens in November.”

Michaela Rawsthorn (she/her) is a fierce social justice advocate, a social work doctoral candidate, mom of three, and a bit of a nerd. She’s worked in state and federal government, as well as for a London-based charity for prisoner’s families and an international leader in prevention research. She’s currently a freelance writer and the managing editor of Rise Up News, the only newspaper delivered inside county jails.