Emergency management governance is our safety net. It’s not a good one.

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Eric Cadora is founder and director of the Justice Mapping Center, which uses data visualization to reframe justice policy around reinvestment in safer communities. He originated the “million-dollar blocks” mapping analysis of neighborhood prison spending.

The phrase “defund the police” has been misconstrued by some as an invitation to anarchy. But when New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) was asked what a neighborhood with no police would look like, she answered with keen irony: “A suburb.”

But suburbs are different from overpoliced neighborhoods in another crucial way. They are not only free from a heavy criminal justice presence, but also from emergency management government — the perpetual default to using overlapping, yet ineffective, crisis responses to address social problems, which is overwhelming many low-income neighborhoods of color.

What does this system of emergency management government look like on the ground? It is neighborhoods where crisis responses such as arrests and incarceration are commonplace, most glaringly, but also communities where residents often must seek emergency room health care, even for chronic illnesses and behavioral health crises. Communities where children experience zero-tolerance schooling, including disruptive school arrests, suspensions or expulsions, exacerbating behaviors that could be managed with time and attention. Communities where housing, economic and family issues are met with temporary shelters, child welfare interventions, predatory lenders and programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which deepen dependency and restrict social and economic mobility.

This is emergency management government, and it is our safety net of last resort.

When emergency management and crisis response become residents’ predominant experiences with government, it can veer into a sort of soft authoritarianism. It’s like living in a neighborhood where houses are always catching fire and the fire department is constantly swooping in, suspending normal sovereignty and civil liberties in favor of a kind of martial law. It’s necessary to put out the fires and save lives. But in anything but the smallest doses, the safety net can become a prison cell.

A project of the Editorial Board, in conversation with outside voices.

To make matters worse, low-income neighborhoods are often unable to exercise meaningful control over their own futures. Sociologists warn that neighborhoods whose rate of poverty exceeds 40 percent are often unable to muster the civic, financial and legal resources they need to defend themselves against invasive and displacing transformations such as gentrification. Without some degree of collective agency and autonomy, neighborhoods administered via emergency management government are doomed to live under a system of control that undermines self-determination.

Behind the defund the police movement is a claim to a deeper truth about safety, one that rebuts a national narrative that has held sway for five decades: that a heavy police presence, lots of arrests and the punitive churn of incarceration are a necessary response to “unsafe neighborhoods.” That has always been wrong. But eliminating policing will not be enough of a change to extract neighborhoods from the rule of emergency management government.

How can we foster neighborhood safety without imposing such an oppressive response? Piecemeal, agency-centered justice reforms alone will not suffice. To move forward, the national reckoning on criminal justice must be embraced by a broader, place-based neighborhood agenda. It will require massive public investment and local control over those investments.

Eddie Ellis, the late justice reform activist, used to call for a “Thurgood Marshall Plan”: what some call a Third American Reconstruction, or a justice reconstruction. Such a plan would include a historic investment in the wider ecosystem of civil-society-based violence-prevention activities, integrated cross-sector human services, and community-based networks that foster social, educational and economic mobility.

But for justice reconstruction to truly succeed, local jurisdictions need to be better equipped to coordinate public investments in their neighborhoods. This may require new forms of governance — ones that can grapple with the complexities of experience at the neighborhood level.

Recent social experimentation may provide a road map to the sort of responsive and agile governing needed to empower neighborhoods in this way. Advances in inclusive governance invite community-oriented development and financial institutions to bring knowledge and neighborhood priorities to the table as policymaking partners. Local jurisdictions can learn to employ innovations in braided budgeting, where multiple government agencies pool budgets to greater neighborhood-wide effect, rather than operate separately in their traditional silos.

Although the shift we need is a tall order, history may be on our side. George Floyd’s killing triggered demand in the streets for law enforcement reform, while covid-19 has exposed a wide swath of Americans to the crisis conditions and insecurities under which so many communities of color and modest means live as a matter of course every day.

Removing the heavy footprint of emergency management governance and investing in neighborhood-focused justice reconstruction would unshackle the vast, pent-up potential of so many American neighborhoods across the country.

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