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Black Chicagoans have hope for future, despite historic public safety difficulties

Photo credit: Chait Golo/Canva

Joint report took one year with extensive collaboration by multiple organizatons

Blackness exacerbates feelings of unsafety, according to a new report released by the Black Public Defender Association, BlackRoots Alliance, Cook County Public Defender, and Northwestern University. “Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Public Defenders” is the result of a one-year project that asked over 100 Black Chicagoans to define what public safety means to them. The information was gathered through listening sessions, interviews, conversations, and role-playing.

“If we truly seek to build safer communities, the conversation about public safety must be informed by the voices of those most impacted and the resilient Black defenders who work tirelessly to champion the well-being of their communities every single day,” said BPDA Executive Director Alaina Bloodworth. “Black Defenders’ experiences, insights, and solutions are not just valuable; they are critical to the path forward.”  

The project officially began in July 2022 with the goal to uplift the voices that are impacted and that actually have the experience with the community. Typically, questions of public safety are centered around issues of policing and incarceration. This report sought to hear directly from the community about what they need to feel safe and thrive. While there are many expert voices on criminal legal system reform, this report centers the voices of defenders and directly-impacted community members.

A secondary goal of the project was to strengthen relationships between Black public defenders and Black Chicagoans. About 40 percent of those interviewed had personal experience with a public defender. While many conveyed a negative opinion about public defenders’ work and role in the criminal legal system, those with personal experience with an assigned public defender reported having some positive experience. The most present fear across interviews was gun violence, with more than two-thirds of community members highlighting personal experience.

The findings of this project aim to help policymakers, funders, activists and community groups build sustainable public safety reforms built on principles of sustainable reforms and responsiveness to Black community needs–in Chicago and across Black communities around the nation.

“Conversations around community safety often center on police interactions and prosecution. While addressing policing and prosecution is critical, it is also important to engage with community members in a different energy — we want to focus on what we do want instead of only focusing on what we don’t want,” said BlackRoots Alliance Executive Director Katelyn Johnson.

 “By focusing on what safety is instead of only what it isn’t, we create space for new possibilities to emerge that allow for investments in the things that keep us feeling safe, like our families, homes, and general well-being. As the report notes, ‘our Black future selves are always in community’ and doing the work of the community, building relationships based on trust, will help build the bridges from harm to healing.”

“Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Public Defenders” is also supported by the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based, nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

“This report is important because it uplifts and centers the voices of those most impacted by violence by asking what they need to feel safe in their communities,” said Joyce Foundation Program Officer Quintin Williams. “It also outlines how public defenders can better serve their clients and communities.” 

Responses and solutions to unsafety were collected in the areas of community engagement, social investment, and police engagement, including:

• Promoting more positive interactions and create more space for unity amongst neighbors;

• Investing in the well-being of residents in the areas of safe and affordable housing, food security, healthcare, education and the labor market; and

• Reforming the current policing that the Black community receives with less aggression, better trained officers and a more fair system.

Public defenders must understand and get to know the people in the communities they serve by actively engaging with the community through events and service.

“This report has been a groundbreaking collaboration between the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender,  Northwestern University and the Black Roots Alliance. As civil servants, we often do things in the name of safety without consulting with those who are directly impacted,” said Emmanuel Andre, Deputy of Policy and Strategic Litigation at the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. “The Community has spoken this report provides a blueprint to public safety and healing in Chicago’s black community. It is incumbent upon us to ensure the changes are made in line with the report so we can have genuine and lasting impact.”

For more information or to talk to an expert about this report, please contact Rabiah Alicia Burks at [email protected].

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