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Collaborating for Community Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda Bond
March 5, 2018

Now more than ever, public service leaders and practitioners need to seek out and support collaboration in pursuit of community safety. Community safety challenges such as drug addiction, youth violence and safe schools are just some of the examples which call for more thoughtful and effective ways of collaborating. Other challenges, such as improved economic development, superior education systems and strong community engagement, require safe communities for people to live, work and visit. Collaboration for the sake of checking off a box or completing a grant application is not what is meant here. These are too often superficial attempts to say one is collaborating without doing the work or reaping the benefits. The type of collaboration needed today calls for a more deliberate, intensified and sustainable relationship between individuals and organizations that have an interest in community safety.

We can be confident in asserting that public safety agents, mostly—but not exclusively—police, have stepped up and led the way for collaborating towards community safety. The community policing movement supported this by promulgating prevention, problem solving and partnerships as part of their mantra. Notwithstanding many legitimate critiques that center on community policing and the status of police-community relations, we can say the policing profession underwent significant changes as a result of community policing, with a newfound interest in partnering with the community.

The challenges facing communities today are complex. Most are not new challenges, but the nature and characteristics of these challenges, and how we understand them, are different. What we know about fostering community safety has changed. The complexities of drug addiction as a disease and the way we prevent and treat addiction has evolved over the past several decades. What we know about preventing and reducing street violence has also grown, and we are doing a better job of allocating human and financial resources accordingly. In these examples, and others such as threats to safety in schools, entertainment venues and other gathering places, we know that collaborating has to be at the heart of promoting community safety.

So, what should collaboration look like and how do leaders “implement” effective collaboration?

First, be more deliberate. Being deliberate means taking the time to think about and through the challenges facing communities. Challenges that go beyond community safety but are influenced by or influence community safety. Rather than rely on the traditional approach of being reactive, be more strategic and deliberate. Community leaders with authority should facilitate deliberate processes that help create meaningful collaborations to understand community challenges and help to create deliberate collaborative approaches. The purpose of being more deliberate is to be proactive, thoughtful and strategic in collaborating towards a specific goal.

Take for example, increases in youth violence. Rather than wait for an incident or pattern of incidents to occur, bring together youth, government, public safety, public health, school, nonprofit and workforce development stakeholders to talk about and work through the challenges that can facilitate youth violence. Move beyond these obvious stakeholders by assessing community assets. Despite the many challenges facing communities, and the growing demands on leaders — research shows that strong leadership is critical to collaborative success.

It is through this proactive work, and strong leadership, that the work of collaboratives becomes intensified. To intensify the work means to strengthen and deepen the relationships of key stakeholders through proven collaboration practices. Frequent and meaningful meetings, strong and agreeable information sharing practices, joint training and professional development, and structures and processes within partnering institutions that allow professionals to invest time in the collaboration, are all practices proven to strengthen relationships. The outcomes of such depth result in more effective work. Again, we are not talking about monthly meetings of a committee that gets nowhere fast but checks a box off for a grant. We are talking about real policy and practice change that is integrated into the work of the participating individuals and agencies. These are evidence-based practices for improving collaboration, and doing so in community safety is more important than almost anything facing public leaders.

Reaping the benefits of effective collaboration goes beyond attaining a specific policy goal. It creates a sustainable approach for communities. Communities face a constantly changing environment. Those communities that are resilient, and can effectively respond to the changing environment, exhibit the type of collaboration discussed here. Sustainability and adaptability happens through deliberate and intensified relationship building, but also requires a level of formality that moves beyond individual relationships. Institutional relationships, institutional policies and agreements between organizations will ensure sustainability. Many organizations are familiar with these types of agreements through mutual aid agreements, memoranda of understanding, and the like, but perhaps we need to explore new arrangements such as explicit job descriptions and performance measurement systems that account for collaboration, or other ideas such as shared budgets, more co-location and shared personnel. These are just a few examples that speak to new ways of supporting and institutionalizing collaboration.

We’ve long know that police or criminal justice institutions cannot prevent and solve crime alone. Communities have come a long way in being more proactive in community safety. But as community safety (and other community) challenges become more complex, and as our knowledge of what works grows, it makes sense to bring together what we know about communities, and about effective collaboration in more deliberate, intensive and more sustainable ways.

Author: Brenda J. Bond, PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service in Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. Dr. Bond’s research centers on the introduction and implementation of organizational change and evidence-based practices in public safety institutions. Email: [email protected]

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