Ralph Rosado is a former city administrator in Miami-Dade and an instructor in FIU’s Public Administration Department. He is running for District 4 City of Miami Commissioner.
Nothing is more important than ensuring the safety of our families, our friends, and our communities. Yet recent local youth shootings have drawn attention to how difficult it can be to keep our neighborhoods safe. And events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere have provoked intense, critical discussions about the current status of community-police relations.
Neighborhood shootings and strained community-police relations are often treated as unrelated issues, but they can be addressed together if we give our police officers more proactive tools. One particularly promising approach comes from East Palo Alto, California.
Like much of South Florida, East Palo Alto is a majority-minority community. More than 80 percent of the city’s 28,000 residents are Latino or African-American. Located between San Francisco and San Jose, East Palo Alto missed the prosperity that benefited Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. It struggled to overcome crime and poverty for decades.
At one point it had the highest homicide rate in the nation — in 1992 alone, 42 of the city’s residents were murdered. Gangs controlled often-vacant parks and playgrounds, while gang-related shootings terrorized the community, scaring many residents from spending time outside their homes. By that year, the life expectancy rate declined to a full 13 years less than the county-wide average.
Starting in 2010, East Palo Alto began taking a series of steps to curb violence. The most innovative of these began in 2012. Called the Fitness Improvement Training (FIT) Zone program, it aims to increase outdoor fitness activities to not only improve residents’ health, but reduce neighborhood violence.
First, the police used ShotSpotter gunshot location detection system technology to identify shooting hotspots. The locations where shots were most often fired were then designated as FIT Zones, neighborhood areas deemed at-risk for random violence. Not surprisingly, they were areas that were typically underutilized because residents deemed them unsafe.
The data was analyzed even more closely to pinpoint the times when violence was most likely to occur there. And then, instead of making sure the neighborhood was clear of residents, officers would do their best to get residents outside, into those empty, high-risk areas. They organized activities like police-led bicycle rides, walking groups, yoga, and volleyball.
The combination of increased police presence at pivotal times in key locations, along with growing numbers of people out and about, has sent a message that this is a healthy, safe neighborhood…and one on the rebound.
The FIT Zone program was designed by East Palo Alto’s then-Police Chief Ronald Davis, who went on to head the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services. As Davis has explained, “The greatest deterrent to crime and violence is not a community saturated with cops – it is a neighborhood alive with residents. The concept is that a healthy community would be, in fact, a safe community.”
The proof is in the pudding: activities that initially attracted 40 participants now draw over 150. Community members (deemed “FIT zone leaders”) now volunteer to coordinate additional exercise activities to supplement what the police can offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, crime has dropped dramatically in the FIT Zone areas.
Crime, violence, and early death come with an expensive price tag – financially, physically, and emotionally, especially in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. Well-designed programs that curb these losses early on can save precious tax dollars in the long-term.
While local law enforcement agencies watch their budgets shrink, innovative, targeted strategies can best attack a problem more effectively and perhaps with fewer resources. The FIT Zone program reflects the kinds of pioneering, cross-sectoral collaborations necessary to tackle complex urban challenges. Adopting strategies that bring civilians and local law enforcement personnel into more positive, meaningful, and sustained contact should prove beneficial to both police officers and the communities they serve, for the benefit of all of us.
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