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A Public Voice 2017: Safety & Justice

Author: 
Natalie Aflalo
May 14, 2017

Highly-publicized police shootings, especially of unarmed black boys and men, have highlighted a national crisis of public safety and justice. These devastations lead us to ask how we can reduce crime as well as police violence, and how we can balance security and liberty. The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) recently published a Safety & Justice guide and is moderating forums throughout the country to help people grapple with these issues and work towards solutions.

 “A Public Voice,” the Kettering Foundation and NIFI’s “annual exploration of public thinking on key issues,”  held on May 9 in Washington, D.C., provided the opportunity for Kettering to share with policymakers their insights from the 150 Safety & Justice forums held so far. Senior Associate Leslie King represented Everyday Democracy.

In his opening address, David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, declared “There is no one in this city, no matter how important they are, that can answer questions of judgement – we have to do that.” He characterized the event as part of the work to bridge divides between the people and the government of America.

At tabletop discussions, NIFI moderators, deliberative practitioners, Congressional staffers and federal officials discussed how people are thinking and talking about issues of safety and justice. Those watching the livestream of the event had the chance to listen in to one of those discussions. Read on for insights from the conversation.

A policing perspective

“We in policing have to demystify policing,” one participant remarked, and went on to describe a 70 year-old woman who only just learned about the concept of community policing after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Part of demystifying the profession, according to him, requires acknowledging when someone has done wrong – otherwise, he said, the public assumes what police are thinking.

Talking about Safety & Justice leads to conversations about, and capacity to address, other issues

Leslie King pointed out that in dialogues about community-police relations, participants invariably end up talking about related issues such as employment, housing, and education. Having dialogues and organizing around community-police relations, she added, ends up building community capacity to deal with other issues. Community members realize they have agency and that government officials can’t simply dictate solutions.

People want to address root causes

In an online Safety & Justice forum, a representative from Kettering shared that the most-agreed-upon point was the need to invest more in education in communities with high rates of crime. He saw this as evidence of people’s desire to address root causes of violence and crime.

Gail Kitch, who serves on the NIFI's board, reported on common themes from the initial Safety & Justice forums. These included:

  • People feel we urgently need to increase understanding and mutual respect between police and people of color. Popular suggestions for achieving this included police making connections with youth, and police going through cultural and racial bias trainings.
  • Participants took responsibility for the issue. Many identified community building and improving relationships within the community as tools to reduce crime.
  • Many expressed the belief that it is unsustainable for police to deal with mental illness and drug-related issues.
  • People expressed a desire to address root problems such as unemployment, poverty, and inequality.

In closing, Mathews described Kettering’s work as “awakening the capacities of people to deliberate with one another.” He left participants and viewers with a challenge he called daunting, but not hopeless: “to build on what grows” – a quote he credited to J. Herman Blake. Every person has the capacity for good judgement, he said -- the job of people in the deliberative field, then, must be to nurture that ability.

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