Every other year, I teach a course in our program titled Murder by Design, which focuses on the relationship between the built environment, community development and violence. It is one of my favorite courses to teach, crime and education are often the two most important factors of neighborhood quality for residents. We explore Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), public health approaches to curbing violence (such Project Ceasefire), the sociological and economic aspects of gang violence, the relationship between trauma and violence, community building activities to foster social capital to counter violence and the use of mapping/GIS to address crime hot spots and strategies to approach problem land uses. Growing up in one of the more violent small cities in the State of Ohio, I also have had intimate personal experience with the complexity and impact of the community violence. I always attempt to share these experiences to ground the research.
Recently, I have found it more challenging to approach this curriculum due to the escalating tensions around police violence. My curriculum engages policing, specifically models of community based policing; from this perspective, the police are an ally in community building or community development efforts. The escalation of police violence challenges this assumption, and underscores a deeper conflict planners should be at the forefront of engaging.
Columbus, OH is a particularly challenging community to be engaging this issue. Despite the City’s growth and recent prosperity, the city is growing more unequal and poverty has deepened. Community tensions and perspectives on police violence underscore this growing divide in the community. The statistics are startling. In the past three years, the City’s police department has killed 24 residents and 83% of those killed were African American. Of the nation’s 15 largest cities, Columbus has the highest rate of police shootings of African American residents. These statistics mask other incidences of police brutality, and the great number of incidents of brutality that go unreported. The statistics also do not do justice to the tragic loss of life of these community members, including a police shooting of a 13-year-old boy, and the trauma this inflicts upon loved ones and neighbors.
These incidences also underscore a deeper tension, the challenge in curbing community violence when it is overshadowed by police violence. I live on the South Side of Columbus; we have a community violence problem, particularly gang related violence in the community, which disproportionately affects young men. While we have a violence problem, many of my neighbors fear the police more than they fear other forms of neighborhood violence. For youth, this has created a more broad fear of White males (who make up the majority of our police force). As described by a young boy in a youth development program in the community: “I’m not trying to be racist, but I feel like because you’re white you want to hurt me, because white cops kill black kids all of the time.”
Given the broader impact of police violence, this sentiment is understandable. Police in my community have advised residents to “relocate” when reporting criminal activity in the area. The neighborhood has a constant police presence, enough to make some residents feel that they are under constant surveillance. Many residents can share stories of police maltreatment or violence, and feel they have no civil rights when interacting with law enforcement. The dismal community/police relationship undermines not only neighborhood efforts to address violence but also community development efforts more broadly.
As with most complex problems, there are more questions than answers. The future planners we train may need to address this issue in the communities they serve, how will we prepare them? For those who are public sector representatives, will community/police tensions undermine their efforts at community engagement? How do explicit and implicit biases interwoven with this issue impact the communities they serve? Do planners, particularly those in community development, have a role in mediating community/police tensions? For planners who advocate on behalf of neighborhoods, how can they successfully engage law enforcement to reform their practices? Can grass roots efforts focused on police violence, such as Black Lives Matter, gain an equal seat at the table in community planning efforts? Research demonstrates that community violence is not an issue that can be resolved through policing only, and requires a more holistic response which provides opportunities for youth and other community members to economically thrive. As planners, how can we advocate to rebalance efforts in neighborhoods where traditionally the only response has been only to police?
ACSP has not been silent on this issue, with members organizing dialogue in the 2016 conference. However, given the ongoing severity of this challenge, even more dialogue is needed in the planning field. Other fields have been more deeply engaged in this topic. Prominent scholars in the field of public health have been focusing on police violence as a public health issues. The American Psychological Association has advocated a “call to action” regarding police violence. As planning educators, how should we be addressing the issue of police violence? I share this blog to stimulate conversation but also to inquire if and how others have addressed the issue of police violence in their classrooms. I hope you can share your insights and experiences in the comments below.
Jason Reece, Ph.D.
City & Regional Planning Section, Knowlton School of Architecture, The Ohio State University