Violent crime has been rising in cities across the country, a trend that has tragically affected our beloved San Antonio. In 2016, San Antonio had 151 homicides, its highest number since 1995. This violence was a major campaign theme in the recent elections. Major politicians – from Mayor Ron Nirenberg to Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) – promised efforts to reverse the trend.
Promises like these are not new to me. Having lived in Chicago for 14 years, I saw violence plague entire neighborhoods and disrupt broader progress in the economy and education system. I also saw many examples of how not to address this issue. As our new mayor and city council build their own plan for keeping San Antonio safe, there are five key notions I believe they should keep in mind.
My suggestions are based on years of both studying Chicago’s criminal justice system and building nonprofit and community interventions to create peace, and I offer them with great humility. Few topics are more complex than violence, and no single perspective is ever likely to be right. But these principles should help keep our policymakers on track as they dive into the complexities themselves.
While tenure in office is temporary, our public servants must build solutions that do more than help them win re-election. For decades, American politicians have run on overly simple strategies for reducing violence. They’ve promised to sweep the streets, to lock away offenders, and throw away the keys. But they’ve failed to think about the implications for the children and families of those locked away.
“Second generation incarceration” is the term for when a child, whose parent was imprisoned, is ultimately put behind bars. In cities like Chicago, second and even third generation incarceration has become increasingly common, but the solutions that policymakers created in previous decades had no lasting power. Furthermore, they set the stage for entire generations of youth to be raised without robust family support.
San Antonio’s leaders should not make that same mistake. They should both treat incarceration as a last resort and provide robust supports for the children of people who are put behind bars. Otherwise, they are kicking the can down the road, and public safety will continue to be a campaign theme for decades to come. To effectively reduce violence, our public safety officials must think generationally, and to do so, policymakers must work across systems. They must see how schools, hospitals, and faith-based communities all have a leading role to play in creating peace.
“Hurt people hurt people.” As this saying implies, most violent offenders have their own past traumas that shape their behavior. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable, but policymakers should work to understand those underlying pains.
San Antonio needs to make healing commonplace. When I ran youth violence prevention programs for the YMCA in Chicago, our mantra was “Healing is Prevention.” When we help people heal, we prevent future harm. To do so, we need a trauma-informed mayor, council, and citizenry. Thankfully, we have many great assets to draw upon in this work.
As “Military City USA,” we have global experts in PTSD treatment who could help build platforms for healing. We also have a robust community of educators, faith leaders, nurses, and doctors who could help bring those platforms to life. Just to share a few ideas: What if every school had a peace room where student trauma could be safely processed? What if every pastor was trained in psychological first aid? What if every person who witnessed a violent incident had a nearby place to come together, share stories of resilience, and repair relationships in?
Build a Portfolio
When we ask our police officers to carry all the weight for creating peace, they get spread too thin. They also get isolated, and key players, like parents to pastors, cease to be active parts of the solution. Instead of all the weight falling on emergency responders, many future emergencies could be prevented before they bubble up. Communities can nurture the kinds of peacemakers they need to address conflicts before they get out of hand.
Police officers need these public safety partners – not just to share information about crimes, but to actually talk to people on the verge of committing them. This is intricate but necessary work, with questions of trust at the very center.
When done right, 911 won’t be the only number residents can call when they are worried about someone. Neighbors will have phone trees for alerting and supporting one another. And, when someone’s life or property is threatened, police officers won’t be tied up with issues that others could be handling, they will be free to respond immediately.
There are vast disparities in the resources that San Antonio neighborhoods have available. Though only miles away, zip codes 78207 and 78209 can feel worlds apart. These disparities map onto long histories of racially unjust policies and often onto rates of violence and crime as well.
The city’s approach to public safety could be a way to help even the playing field. For example, what if every young person who was arrested was sent to a youth development program to discover positive talents? What if their arrest was viewed as a call for help rather than a deviant act? And what if San Antonio had the programs in place to answer the call?
Building that kind of future would require greater investments in communities with the greatest needs. Our city would have to ensure that parents could earn a living without having to always be at work, and that every part of town had the educators, mentors, and youth development leaders that children need to succeed. Imagine the possible benefits of an equity-based public safety strategy. By viewing each arrest as a signal that we need deeper investments, we could shift the course of the future.
Invest Now, Save Down the Road
When the above principles aren’t followed, society can get stuck locking everyone up. That is both ethically wrong and extremely expensive. In Chicago, some colleagues and I built a website that shows how much money was spent on incarceration across the city at the block level. As the website illustrated, the State of Illinois is spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on locking up residents in just a few Chicago community areas. San Antonio can easily avoid that fate. But only if our newly-elected officials take a smart, principled, and well-balanced approach to shaping our future.