Opinion We can’t reimagine safety without being clear-eyed about America’s gun problem

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Patrick Sharkey is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and is a member of the Square One Project’s Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy.

The effort to reimagine public safety has to contend with two crises: a crisis of police legitimacy and a crisis of urban gun violence.

The first crisis is visible to the entire nation, especially as videos of police violence have proliferated and the trial of Derek Chauvin captures national attention.

The full scale of the second crisis is only now becoming visible, but it has been building for six years. After 2014, the safest year in the modern history of the United States, gun violence rose gradually but steadily. Then, in 2020, it skyrocketed. Along with Alisabeth Marsteller and Yinzhi Shen, I have collected and analyzed data on violence for the 100 largest cities in the United States. The change since 2014 is sobering.

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

The rate of fatal shootings has risen since 2014 in all but 12 of the largest 100 cities. In cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Houston and Kansas City, the rate of fatal shootings was well more than twice as high in 2020 than in 2014. Most of the increase came last year.

The two crises are tightly interwoven, because the work of policing is simply more dangerous in places with more guns. Even though police officers’ actual risk of being killed by gunfire is as low as it’s been in 50 years, the threat of violence against police still dominates every aspect of police culture and officer behavior.

As gun violence becomes more common, Americans, including Black Americans and their political representatives, become more likely to express approval for harsher treatment of criminals and more aggressive policing. After a sharp rise of gun violence in 2020, the calls to turn back to the police have already begun.

As long as cities have a gun problem, the problem of abusive and violent policing will be much harder to solve. And solving the gun problem itself is exceedingly difficult, with only imperfect and politically challenging approaches available. Governments could require licenses for gun ownership, better regulate gun sales and closely track guns used to commit crimes, especially as they move across state lines. Cities have begun to use controversial methods of sensing gunfire, as well as panoptic video technology to respond rapidly. Police and community collaborations have effectively focused resources on the tiny fraction of spaces and people responsible for a disproportionate share of gun violence. And a widening set of community-led programs have emerged, with mixed or incomplete records of success, to disrupt cycles of violence and to engage with and offer supports to those at highest risk of becoming victims of gunfire.

Some of these approaches have convincing evidence behind them, but they are far from established as clearly effective ways to reverse the trend of rising gun violence. Those of us calling for a reimagination of public safety must acknowledge that America’s overflowing supply of guns means that an armed response is sometimes required.

This observation does not, however, mean that cities need to rely only on police to respond to the surge of gun violence. Although strong evidence tells us that more police on the street leads to less violence, this evidence ignores the harm that has arisen from our reliance on the police. Aggressive or violent policing has tangible negative effects on school performance and the health of residents throughout communities where it is targeted. It has resulted in widespread resentment and estrangement from the law. It has resulted in mass incarceration.

There is a large body of evidence, and a moral imperative, behind the goal of transforming the way cities invest to create public safety. This transformation starts with investments in residents and local community organizations, not the police. Police should not be asked to respond to all of the problems that come bundled together with extreme urban inequality. The people who are called in to mediate conflicts, calm tempers and defuse feuds should be credible messengers who have the cultural authority to talk to their neighbors with respect, empathy and wisdom. Police should not be called in to disrupt disputes among people who don’t trust them.

And perhaps most important, police officers should no longer patrol our nation’s streets. The people who look out over public spaces should be advocates whose job is to make sure that every young person feels welcomed, that everyone who needs help gets it, that every park and playground is safe, and that no one falls through the cracks.

You can’t reimagine safety at a time of rising violence without police — but in their proper role. Law enforcement must be on call to respond to requests for assistance when a gun is present, but the community residents, leaders and organizations who do this work are the ones who create public safety. It is past time to invest in their efforts.

Read more on how to Reimagine Safety

Every community deserves to be safe and healthy, but with police facing a crisis of legitimacy, it can be hard to see a way forward. A project from The Washington Post Editorial Board shares proven strategies that cities can embrace now and are not centered in law enforcement.

Read the full project here.

More from outside voices:

Moki Macias: We need to rethink mental health care — and the assumptions we have about what support means

Jasmine Heiss and Krishnaveni Gundu: Why reimagining safety looks different in rural America

Fatimah Loren Dreier and David Muhammad: President Biden is listening to communities on violence prevention. Congress should, too.

Patrick Sharkey: We can’t reimagine safety without being clear-eyed about America’s gun problem

Debbie Ramsey: I’m a former Baltimore police detective. Cities like mine should embrace a community responder model.

Elizabeth Glazer: To fuel public safety reform, cities must build their civic muscles

Phillip Atiba Goff: We’re making progress on the ‘what’ of reimagining safety. But what about the ‘how'?

Marc Mauer and Bernice Mireku-North: How we are reimagining public safety in Montgomery County

Johanna Wald and David J. Harris: Abolishing the death penalty must be part of reimagining safety

Andrea James: Women and girls must be at the center of reimagining safety

Richard Wallace: In Chicago, systemic racism runs deep. Our solutions must evolve.

Cedric L. Alexander: Which side are you on? That’s a question every police officer must answer.

Eugenia C. South: If Black lives really matter, we must invest in Black neighborhoods

Kassandra Frederique: To truly create safe communities, we must end the war on drugs

Thomas Abt: To stop the spike in urban violence, engage those most at risk

Elizabeth Hinton: We were warned about a divided America 50 years ago. We ignored the signs.

Chloe Cockburn: Money can’t buy criminal justice reform. But it can fuel a movement.

Robert Rooks, Lenore Anderson: No, crime survivors don’t want more prisons. They want a new safety movement.

Eric Cadora: Emergency management governance is our safety net of last resort. It’s not a good one.


Aqeela Sherrills: Police do not stop cycles of violence. Communities do.

Norma Loyd, Brandon Russ: Mental illness is not a crime. Police should not respond like it is.

Read the transcript of a live chat with editorial writer Emefa Addo Agawu on this project.

Read letters to the editor in response to this project.