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Efforts to improve public safety start in the community, new study finds

The entrance to the Buzz Westfall Justice Center on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A new study released Tuesday by researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance finds that community safety is defined differently by the public and justice officials. St. Louis County was one of three counties that took part in the research; above is the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton.

Whether it’s a lack of working streetlights in lower-income communities or slow response times by emergency officials, the 2023 Redefining Community Safety Report shows people in St. Louis County are concerned about safety in ways that go beyond the traditional scope of justice officials.

Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through the Safety and Justice Challenge, the new study was released on Tuesday. Hundreds of people in St. Louis County completed surveys and participated in interviews and focus groups as researchers gathered insight into what the community thinks about public safety.

In addition to St. Louis County, Missoula County in Montana and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina also participated in the study. For all counties, study participants were over the age of 18, and people from the criminal legal system such as courts, corrections and law enforcement were included.

Researchers said they also interviewed and surveyed unhoused people, those who have been arrested, incarcerated and victims of crime, and people who have worked with system-impacted individuals like service providers, advocates and county employees for their perspectives too.

What do people say about public safety?

Most survey respondents in St. Louis County rated all the components of community safety as important or very important. The element of safety with the highest score of importance in St. Louis was day-to-day feelings of safety. The next five most highly rated components had similar levels of importance, which included more traditional aspects of public safety, such as effective responses to emergencies, gun violence prevention, freedom from violence and other harm, and ethical and respectful policing.

The least important element of community safety, according to study participants in St. Louis County, was a responsive, ethical and transparent government.

LaRhonda Wilson, an advisory board member for the project and professor of sociology at St. Louis Community College, said it makes sense for the people impacted by violence and other issues to help highlight community needs.

“They see it more broadly than how we’re trained,” Wilson said. “So many people lack access to things they need in order to feel safe, including health care, privacy, access to quality education, access to food, access to housing and access to the labor force.”

Lee Slocum, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said she was intrigued by the broad and varying perspectives.

“The way they thought about safety was also a little different in terms of how people perceived them when they walked into a room knowing they had a criminal record,” Slocum said. “And also when they themselves had been victimized by crime, they understand that a lot of times that comes out of people simply trying to get their needs met, so they had a different perspective on victimization as well.

“But accountability in one community might look different than in a different community,” Slocum added. “Ethical and responsive policing in one community might look different than in someplace else.”

The study found violence to be a significant concern for St. Louis County residents, too. As they did in many places, aggravated assaults and homicides rose at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers found that concerns about violence were exacerbated by the county’s proximity to St. Louis, which has high crime rates as well.

For Black county residents, particularly those in north St. Louis County, the study found them to be disproportionately impacted by crime and the criminal legal system. Fragmentation across the county generates frustration and makes it challenging to address crime and related issues in a coordinated fashion, the study revealed.

Key findings and solutions

  • In St. Louis and Mecklenburg, North Carolina, counties, the media covered stories of violence more than any other crime type. The news media in St. Louis County often portrays crime as the primary responsibility of the criminal legal system. While criminal legal system responses, such as heightened enforcement, may have a short-term effect on crime and violence, longer-term solutions require collaboration among a range of stakeholders and addressing root social factors. Media coverage of crime trends often features the perspectives of government officials and criminal legal system actors. Researchers say local media can be a powerful partner in reshaping the way the community thinks about safety to include various social, economic and political indicators, such as access to affordable health care and government accountability.
  • In St. Louis County, there was general agreement that violence, particularly gun violence, is a significant safety issue for residents. Black individuals and those with lower incomes bear the burden of living in disproportionately violent places. Accordingly, their perspectives must be heard and considered when developing and implementing anti-violence policies and practices.
  • Make data on community safety easily accessible to the public. Creating a dashboard or website that brings together these data and makes it easily accessible can empower communities to assess their progress toward achieving safety. St. Louis County’s high level of fragmentation creates many challenges for safety as it hinders the ability to address crime and related concerns in a coordinated fashion. 
  • Handing the microphone to individuals closest to the problem illuminates overlooked areas of safety that are often taken for granted or not considered in mainstream discussions.
  • Frame conversations around “community safety” instead of “public safety” to help people think more expansively about what safety looks like and how to achieve this goal. This also has the potential to reveal the broader historical forces that create and sustain inequalities associated with safety.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and managed by the City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance through the SJC Research Consortium.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.