Though San Antonio is a majority-minority city and has been an innovator in criminal justice reform, our public safety model is still subject to the larger pitfalls of systemic racism. 

Two of these pitfalls are closely connected: the ways our policies have impacted certain communities of color and the ways we discount the role these same communities can play in peacemaking. Working in tandem, these pitfalls limit how we approach debates and consider new possibilities.

For decades now, across the country and in San Antonio, Black and brown neighborhoods have been punished at disproportionate rates. Nationally, there is clear evidence that mass incarceration impacts some areas dramatically more than others. Locally, this same concentration of punishment is documented on the Justice Atlas, where you can zoom into past prison admission rates by zip code for Bexar County.

These disproportionate rates of punishment have had profound cumulative effects. Decades of research shows that high neighborhood incarceration rates have adversely affected children’s well-being, community mental health, and the likelihood of economic mobility. Research also shows that high incarceration rates can also increase future crime levels

Police violence only adds to the problem. Officer-involved shootings are the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men. And those killed are not the only ones hurt. For example, in schools near these incidents, there is also a negative impact on the academic performance of Black and Hispanic students.

Our country’s dominant narrative says that individual people do bad things and must be held accountable. But when you look at the criminal justice system more closely, you see that punishment has not just been doled out individually. Entire communities have been and continue to be punished. 

In San Antonio, when you compare the zip codes with the highest prison admissions to those with the highest levels of inequity, there is a direct correspondence. In these predominately Black and brown communities, there have been ample resources for punishment, but often scarce resources for grocery stores, high-quality after-school programs, or higher wages. 

If you are not from one of these communities, our overinvestment in punishment can be hard to see or understand. Decades of racist policies have segregated our communities and positioned people to have very different experiences of the law. Meanwhile, isolated living keeps us from working to understand the realities of people from different backgrounds. That makes it far too easy for those of us outside of impacted areas to believe that our criminal justice system works just fine for everyone. 

If we are going to turn the corner in public safety, we must fundamentally change both how we see and how we invest in marginalized Black and brown communities. We must recognize the pain and injustice they’ve endured. And we must start to resource approaches to safety that empower residents’ ability to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors.

When well-run programs engage residents in the work of peacemaking, amazing shifts can happen. Going way beyond community policing, our country has produced some incredible models for how communities can play much larger roles in peacemaking, accountability, and healing. One example is Common Justice, which helps residents to transform harm without relying on imprisonment. Another is READI, which identifies those most likely to be involved in shootings and redirects them through both employment and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Charting a new path means confronting our own racist thinking about who is qualified to make a difference. It means looking beyond just badges and blue uniforms for solutions to our safety challenges. And it means moving many more dollars into violence prevention and community safety programs led by residents.

This year’s city budget takes an important step in that direction by better resourcing the Stand Up SA program, which draws from national best practices in street violence prevention, as well as family violence prevention. But we need a much more robust and ambitious community safety portfolio. Building that portfolio is the only surefire way to simultaneously increase safety, reduce police violence, and keep moving away from mass incarceration.

Today, public safety is synonymous with law enforcement. We unquestioningly assume that our approach to harm and wrongdoing must be rooted in handcuffs, gavels, and cells. But when properly resourced, communities have enormous untapped power to improve their own conditions and outcomes. By recognizing both the damage we’ve caused and supporting the capacity of those who have endured that damage, we can indeed chart a new path.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon is the author of “The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City,” from Beacon Press. He is also the executive director of UP Partnership, a collective...