Reimagining public safety on Jefferson Street

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd speaks at the April 5th Jefferson St meeting.

By Nicole D. Porter

[Ed note: Petworth News is pleased to present an opinion article from Nicole Porter, local Petworth resident and a person that Essence Magazine named in 2014 as a "New Civil Rights Leader" for her work in understanding and remediating incarceration issues. You can read Nicole's bio at the end of the article.]

I was at the recent community meeting at Brightwood Park United Methodist Church. As a resident of Jefferson Street, I appreciated the leadership from elected officials, law enforcement, and the faith community in being responsive to community concerns of violence. I want to offer an approach to public safety beyond arrests that includes targeted employment strategies, supporting community relationships and acknowledging the potential for current social capital. 

Much of the conversation focused on law enforcement responses to crime, including the security camera rebate program, and other deterrence strategies that have resulted in an increased police presence. Evidence does show that the certainty of arrest helps to deter crime. To that end, perhaps the police light tower at 8th and Jefferson Street NW has helped to prevent crimes and made the neighborhood safer.

However, evidence also tells us that is not the only way to keep the neighborhood safe. At least one resident expressed concern over the constant presence of the light tower. She stated that it impacts the overall appeal for the neighborhood and compromises the community’s aesthetic. I agree.

MPD camera at 8th & Jefferson

The light tower doesn’t address the root causes known to contribute to crime, including lack of opportunity along Jefferson Street and the surrounding community. Several of the meeting’s participants mentioned reasons behind chronic crime including a lack of jobs for many of the young men with criminal records.

Their concerns make sense. If a young adult gets a criminal record, even for a nonviolent drug or property offense, that record may marginalize him or her from living wage employment that can support themselves and their families. The collateral impacts of arrests can be substantial and affect not only the arrestee but their loved ones and the surrounding community.

In the long term, there are interventions that stakeholders along Jefferson Street can promote including improving quality education and supporting living wage employment to the District for its long-time residents. 

There are practical solutions for the short term as well. Residents mentioned that there are job training programs, but there was also indication of a lack of trust, given the perceived effectiveness and the types of jobs participants are trained for in the programs. 

A solution might be to recognize the reasons for chronic unemployment in the neighborhood including the issue of criminal records. To address this, the community might convene a roundtable discussion of neighborhood entrepreneurs who can highlight self-employment strategies in the formal labor market. There may be area welders, plumbers or electricians who can share how they got started and tips for success. To enhance that approach, local community and faith leaders might develop a small business incubator initiative to reinforce employment strategies for neighborhood residents who have trouble obtaining jobs.  Community stakeholders might also organize a local expungement workshop and maintain a current resource list of major employers like Busboys and Poets, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot that hire persons with criminal records.

Other public safety solutions include strengthening community networks to deepen relationships with long-time residents and new neighbors. Meeting participants thought this might offer interventions for at risk-youth. Those solutions could involve organizing a parent network for neighborhood residents. Studies show that friendship networks among parents can help monitor actions among youth in different circumstances and provide parental feedback that reinforces public safety norms. 

Another solution might be creating a physical activity-focused group, such as a local GirlTrek. The group seeks to mobilize women to live their healthiest, most fulfilled lives through a habit of daily walking. Perhaps a co-gender or male-centered group can get started, too. This can foster a network for the broader community, not only parents, but all of our neighbors on Jefferson Street and the surrounding area.

Lastly, to strengthen public safety on Jefferson Street, we need to recognize the social capital and potential that already exists. That requires stakeholders to find ways to build meaningful relationships with the youth and young adults in the community. Opportunities exist to establish meaningful relationships with the youth and learn what is needed to reduce crime and violence. They may reinforce concerns about jobs, but they may also mention a desire for youth-centered activities like a gamer tournament, the creation of a neighborhood sports league, or regular hip-hop writing workshops at Culture Coffee. 

As a resident of Jefferson Street, I want the community to be safe and welcoming for everyone. I recognize the human potential that currently lives here and the new opportunities for the neighborhood. I was encouraged by the recent meeting and know the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (4D) is looking to host future opportunities for dialogue. I look forward to participating and working on public safety solutions. 

Photo courtesy Nicole Porter

Nicole Porter is the Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy for criminal justice reform. Nicole holds a Master's Degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School at University of Texas at Austin. Her master's thesis explored self-employment strategies for formerly incarcerated African Americans.

Nicole is the former director of the Texas ACLU’s Prison & Jail Accountability Project (PJAP). The project’s mission was to monitor the conditions of confinement in Texas jails and prisons. Nicole advocated in the Texas legislature to promote felony enfranchisement reforms, to address prison rape, and improve prison medical care. Previously, Nicole worked for the Appleseed Foundation, National Women’s Political Caucus, and the American Prospect Magazine.

She was named a "New Civil Rights Leader" by Essence Magazine in November 2014 for her work to eliminate mass incarceration. Nicole is a resident of Jefferson Street NW and is a member of Brightwood Park United Methodist Church. On the weekend you can often find her at Culture Coffee. To contact Nicole, sent her an email or a tweet

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