Panel sees community-based groups as a leading force for urban safety, past and future

Panelists Pat Sharkey, Eric Cumberbatch and Eric Klinenberg, along with moderator David Remnick.
From left to right: Panelists Pat Sharkey, Eric Cumberbatch, and Eric Klinenberg, along with moderator David Remnick.

Despite dramatic crime reductions in recent decades, relations between the police and many urban communities simmer and flare, defined more by signs of alienation, controversial police shootings, and lingering trauma than by mutual respect.

Responding to questions posed by The New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who served as moderator, New York University sociologists Eric Klinenberg and Pat Sharkey and New York City Office of Gun Violence Director Eric Cumberbatch discussed this disjuncture at NYU Wagner on April 24. The panelists explored how repatterned approaches focused on strengthening community resilience are making a difference.

The standing-room-only event was a timely NYU Wagner forum on “Safety in the 21st Century” organized by Liz Glazer, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the school’s Distinguished Visiting Urbanist for 2017-18. The first in a series, the discussion elicited questions from audience members on hand and those watching the livestream and using Twitter.


Liz Glazer starts off the event
Liz Glazer

For Sharkey, author of the newly published book Uneasy Peace about the national plunge in crime since its peak in the 1990s, community organizations have had at least as much to do with the crime decline as law enforcement crackdowns and mass incarceration.

His data-driven findings represent a point of departure for policymakers who believe, like Klinenberg and Cumberbatch, that strengthening social infrastructure and improving the built environment are critical to improving community safety and the lives of city dwellers.

“Police are crucial,” Sharkey said in reply to Remnick at one point. “We are arguing for a new model where police are working closely with residents.”

Compared with mass incarceration and police initiatives, Professor Sharkey said, the mobilization by community-based groups in neighborhoods hardest hit by violent crime has been little-noticed. Yet these are as responsible as law enforcement for curbing violence decisively.

“That’s been left out of the discussion,” he said. More and more, however, it’s included, with police departments and policymakers looking to families and community-based organizations to help lower crime levels even further.

Giving both resources and respect to community-based organizations represents a major ingredient in improving public safety in the 21st century, explained Cumberbatch. But building safety and a sense of fairness also depends on addressing racism.

“I would start with a historical sense of being traumatized, and that trauma being felt across generations—the trauma, the mistrust, the hurt,” he said. “A lot of those things have never been addressed. There is very little truth and reconciliation on that topic, or even acknowledging it exists.”