Jacksonville has engaged in a yearlong national conversation titled “Safety and Justice: How Should Communities Reduce Violence?”
Organized by the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute, over 200 forums in 48 U.S. communities brought together thousands of citizens to discuss the issue.
In Jacksonville, 14 deliberative dialogue forums involving over 200 people were hosted by faith communities, the Atlantic Institute and University of North Florida Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Hicks Honors College.
Participants included police officers, law enforcement professionals, educators, community activists, labor union members, drug abuse counselors, pastors and mental health advocates.
The issue is clear. The Jacksonville murder rate increased by 18 percent over 2016, 16.8 people for every 100,000.
To compare, 290 people were murder victims in New York City or 3.4 per 100,000.
The purpose of deliberative forums is to bring citizens together to weigh a number of specific violence prevention actions with distinctive options for addressing the issue.
Option No. 1 engaged people in discussing community-police partnerships to enforce the law together.
Option No. 2 related to applying the law fairly with ways to modify police tactics and reduce arrests for minor offenses.
Option No. 3 spoke to de-escalating and preventing violence through training and investing in mental health treatment programs.
The final step in the deliberative process involved identifying actions that generated significant agreement. After reviewing the results of the Jacksonville and national forums, a strong sense of the “public’s voice” was determined.
First, the national report noted that “the tone and tenor of these conversations seemed dramatically different from what we see on the news, in protests or in conventional forms of public engagement.” Participants did not assess blame to police departments. On the contrary, participants recommended fostering constructive relationships among citizens, organizations and police.
Second, many agreed that there are fundamental challenges to policing, but also a strong sense that citizens need to show greater respect toward law enforcement personnel.
Third, citizens want effective “community policing” supported by faith communities and civic organizations such as the New Town Success Zone near Edward Waters College. JSO officers help develop positive relationships when they walk the beat or get out of their patrol cars to interact with people.
Fourth, participants feel that race is an important factor when it comes to challenges relating to community safety. Implicit bias training was mentioned for police departments. JSO recently announced an expanded bias training program for officers in Zone 5.
Fifth, forum contributors recognized that economic and educational disparities contribute to the root causes of violence.
Deliberators saw the lack of comprehensive community mental health services as a public health problem. Crises and emergencies experienced by residents living with mental illnesses over-burden both the health and law enforcement systems in Jacksonville.
We learned from our local forums that when law enforcement officers and citizens come together to address violence prevention with the support of factual information and skilled moderators, substantive discourse and trust happen.
The Rev. R. Gregg Kaufman is affiliated with the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute.