Why Community Members are Vital Partners for Transforming Public Safety Research into Action

Community violence is now a leading cause of death among young people, and youth of color are most affected. As researchers and generators of evidence, we must recognize the urgency of these issues and collaborate closely with those who are most impacted and thus best poised to inform, benefit from, and implement lessons from the research.

Watch the two-minute summary of the Pathways to Peace dialogue or view the full event recording.

The vital role that community members serve in a successful research-to-practice continuum echoed throughout our Pathways to Peace public symposium in Nashville, Tennessee. The themes we heard are critical, particularly as we consider how the AIR Equity Initiative can deepen and grow our efforts to engage in community conversations and work toward a localized approach to dismantle the harmful effects of segregation by race and place. 

Here are five key lessons shared by youth justice and public safety leaders at the event. 

1. People have the power to create the public safety systems they want to see.

“Public safety does not belong to the police,” says Nicholas Sensley, retired police chief and founder and chief executive officer of the Institute for American Policing Reform (IAPR). “Public safety belongs to you. And we have been negligent in maintaining our ownership of public safety.” The AIR Equity Initiative is funding an evaluation of IAPR’s efforts to learn what works in police reform. As part of the evaluation, AIR researchers and technical assistance providers seek to understand whether IAPR’s police-community engagement efforts help to improve racial equity of policing practices, police accountability, and cooperation between communities and police.  


2. Involve communities at the start of evidence generation. 

“Participatory approaches have become central to our work—honoring the full humanity of the communities we are serving,” says Candace Hester, AIR principal researcher. “This includes community advisory boards, where we pay community members to meet with our staff quarterly and advise us on everything from the research design to dissemination. For example, the AIR Equity Initiative has funded an evaluation of the Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board in Oakland, which pays young people to participate in evaluation activities, design their own research questions, come up with their own recommended solutions, and collaborate with us around dissemination.”   


3. We must consider whose voices we are centering in conversations on public safety. 

“We need to start by asking, what do we mean by safety, and for whom?” says Paula Ioanide, qualitative research methodologist at the Center for Policing Equity. “How can we center Black community voices and empower them to be at decision-making tables, so that when we redesign public safety systems, we can also think about a mental health response. We can think about a different kind of public safety response system.” 

Through an AIR Equity Initiative-funded evaluation of the Center for Policing Equity’s Strategic Partnership Program, a team of AIR researchers has joined Paula in doing just that—empowering communities to drive how public safety is defined and administered within policing and local government systems by facilitating access to data that are traditionally unavailable. The evaluation examines whether this intensive, data-driven, research and community informed partnership strategy reduces harmful policing and enables alternative public safety structures.  


4. Sustainable change requires community buy-in.

“We can have the best data. We can have the most accurate models, the most accurate analytics,” says Ugochi Jones, vice president of data science at Benchmark Analytics. “But if there's no buy-in, no action or change will happen in terms of behaviors.” Jones’ team is working on artificial intelligence-driven dashboards that provide law enforcement with real time insights on how officers are engaging with and affecting community members. In addition to the communities served by law enforcement, police officers themselves are a community for whom data have the power and potential to catalyze action and inspire change, Jones notes. 

The AIR Equity Initiative is funding teams of AIR researchers to harness the power of policing data to reduce harm in policing. They will identify jurisdictional responses for officers at risk of using force, explore how research aligns with current policies and practices, and develop guidance for early intervention to prevent officer use of force. 

5. Knowledge alone is insufficient for shifting culture; people need to be equipped with the skills to act.

"We know that implicit bias training is really good at raising people's awareness about their automatic biases, but it's not very good at changing their behavior," says Christy Lopez, professor from practice and co-faculty director of Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety

The AIR Equity Initiative is funding an assessment of the combined effects of Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement and implicit bias police trainings to test whether coupling knowledge with practical skills can change behavior and culture, as well as reduce racial disparities in harmful officer conduct. Lopez says, “If you can train officers to intervene, you can help create a culture in which intervention is not only accepted but demanded by the culture and change the way policing happens and reduce policing harm.”

As we continue our efforts in improving justice and public safety for all, we want to hear from you—not only about the challenges, but about what is working well, and where. Connect with us on LinkedIn and X (Twitter) using the hashtag #AIR4Equity to keep the conversation going and share your thoughts and experiences.

Jaspal Bhatia
Program Officer, AIR Equity Initiative
Rashawn Ray
Vice President and Executive Director of the AIR Equity Initiative
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