Catalyst Grant Program Insights Reimagining Public Safety in Tucson, Arizona
Susan Nembhard, Evelyn F. McCoy
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Man proudly holding banner that says "Just communities are relationship."
Photo by Tyler Woida, courtesy of Just Communities Arizona

For decades, the United States has tried to address violence and crime with measures that focus on increasing punishment, surveillance, and incarceration to deliver safety. Those measures have often been ineffective (PDF) and have disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities that continue to experience the effects of centuries of systematic disinvestment. Furthermore, traditional reforms in the criminal legal system have often been developed by system stakeholders without input from those most likely to experience violence, crime, and criminal legal system involvement. With funding from the Catalyst Grant Program, Just Communities Arizona (JCA), an abolitionist organization based in Tucson, developed and launched a community survey to learn about the perceptions of safety of Tucson residents, especially those in underresourced and overpoliced neighborhoods. Understanding that safety can mean more than just perceptions of crime, the survey focused on what residents believe would improve their safety and well-being. In particular, it focused on factors outside the criminal legal system, such as how meeting needs related to housing, environment, and employment can help people feel safer. These insights can broaden Tucson policymakers’ understanding of safety beyond a simplistic absence of reported crime and suggest more holistic investments to benefit the city’s communities of color.

Sowing Seeds for Community-Based Research

Just Communities Arizona’s community survey project emerged from a strong foundation of community-driven research led by Dr. Grace Gámez, a leader in justice advocacy. In 2019, Dr. Gámez led a team of researchers from Flowers & Bullets to conduct the Barrio Centro Community Safety Participatory Research Project (PDF), which surveyed 179 residents in the community of Barrio Centro to understand their perceptions of what safety feels like, what resources are present in healthy and thriving communities, and what safety looks like. The study revealed that perceptions of safety went beyond traditional indicators used in the criminal punishment system. More than half of respondents reported that feeling safe meant having the space to build meaningful, trusting connections with neighbors, and being able to live and grow with fellow community members successfully and healthily. None mentioned police, incarceration, or border patrol as ways to improve community members’ safety and well-being.

Despite this, in its budget, the City of Tucson has historically invested heavily in punitive criminal legal system measures and in law enforcement, such as in 2021, when the Tucson Police Department was the third-largest agency expenditure in the city, behind water and transportation. Just Communities Arizona identified a need for better and more comprehensive citywide research on public safety. It designed its survey to that end and focused on two definitions of safety:

  • Community safety, gleaned from the Barrio Centro project, refers to people’s ability to thrive together in sustainable ways that are culturally relevant and self-determined.
  • Carceral safety relies almost exclusively on systems of punishment, retribution, and coercive control (including policing, incarceration, and detention) to understand, imagine, and practice safety.

Research by the Community, for the Community

Initially, JCA developed its research with a focus on residents in Tucson’s Wards 1, 3, and 5, but with funding from the mayor’s office it was able to survey residents in all wards. Its goal was to uplift the voices of community members and highlight their lived experience to influence policy decisions on community safety.

In this study, JCA took a participatory research approach by hiring and training residents from the wards of focus to develop the survey, share information about it with community members, and disseminate findings. Hiring researchers from communities of focus is a strategy in community engaged research methods and can strengthen research by enabling residents to guide, design, and implement it. Including the people who are the closest to the life of a community is a way of acknowledging they are best equipped to contextualize and participate in researching it. By hiring project staff from its communities of focus, JCA could prioritize residents’ expertise. And compensating community researchers and engaging them in decisions like JCA did throughout the survey process is how research organizations can show respect for community members’ lived experience and subject-matter knowledge.

For JCA, having community researchers lead survey dissemination was an integral part of ensuring residents’ voices were heard. Members of the project team had experience and relationships in the community and a working knowledge of best practices for getting the survey to residents and encouraging participation. Community researchers were trained on interview techniques, outreach, and how to use Microsoft Forms (the tool used to collect the survey data), all skills that would equip them for future work.

What Did the Survey Find?

The survey was administered between December 2021 and August 15, 2022, in English and Spanish and received 1,206 responses from residents across all six Tucson wards.

Overall, housing, affordable and accessible mental health services, and better-resourced schools were the three types of resources respondents wanted most.

Figure 1: What resources would you most like to see more of in your community?

Figure 1: What resources would you most like to see more of in your community?

Source: Just Communities Arizona 2022 community safety survey.

Only about 4 percent (n=44) selected more police as a top-three resource, highlighting the need to have city budgets that better reflect what creates day-to-day safety for the people of Tucson. This is especially true considering the current economic situation in Tucson and across the country with postpandemic inflation and job scarcity. For example, if someone cannot afford a home and therefore does not have a place to rest and revive themselves, safety is decreased. Understanding this ripple effect of policy decisions on individual and community safety is key if true community safety is the goal.

To reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities, residents would like to see strides in community-based alternatives to arrest and detention, more accessible mental health and substance abuse services, and more affordable housing. Tucsonans expressed the need for more diverse services to address racial and socioeconomic disparities in areas like income, home ownership, and jail/prison incarceration (though Tucson’s police-activity data fail to include information on race, significant racial disparities in county jails have been recorded).

Figure 2: What should the city prioritize to reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities?

Figure 2: What should the city prioritize to reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities?

Source: Just Communities Arizona 2022 community safety survey.

Although COVID-19 has made the past two years unpredictable, Tucson residents indicated most areas have stayed the same or improved. Housing options, however, are a growing concern. This aligns with a nationwide issue related to stagnant wages, inflation, and a hyper-competitive housing market. Tucson saw more than a 20 percent increase in rent prices between 2020 and 2021, an increase which is far above increases in wages and which has been exacerbated by inflation. This, along with survey findings that residents have concerns with the increases in people experiencing homelessness, provides many areas for investment that can increase individual and family stability, which is key to ensuring community safety.

Figure 3: Most Tucson residents indicated that the city has stayed the same or gotten better in most areas

Figure 3: Most Tucson residents indicated that the city has stayed the same or gotten better in most areas

Source: Just Communities Arizona 2022 community safety survey.

We also see that residents feel access to public transportation has been the most improved area. This could be directly related to the city removing fares for public transportation during the pandemic and continuing that policy at least until December 2022, when it will be revisited.

In line with its goals of community engagement, JCA has also worked to make this research transparent and accessible to community members. Data and findings from the survey, without any personally identifiable information, can be found on a Microsoft Power BI dashboard and is also available on JCA’s website. Users can view, filter, and dig deep into findings based on demographics, location, and topics, giving them greater insight into their specific areas of interest.

Challenges in Community-Based Research

Just Communities Arizona took substantial steps to encourage community members to take the survey by making it accessible and available, and by using community engaged methods. But it still struggled with participation, particularly from groups that historically have been overlooked in research: renters, people experiencing houselessness, people of color, immigrants/refugees, and monolingual Spanish speakers were difficult to engage in survey participation.

It made efforts to engage these groups, but the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to difficulties (PDF) doing outreach and engaging with potential participants. People with low incomes, for example, are often less likely to have reliable internet access, and other traditional methods of outreach have not been feasible during the pandemic.

What’s to Come

With the results in hand and a final report forthcoming, JCA is collaborating with the City of Tucson to present recommendations for future policy decisions on community safety, highlighting what noncarceral approaches residents want. As a part of the collaboration, the city plans to compile the data and use it to inform investment decisions. In addition, JCA will be hosting feedback sessions or “Cafecitos” where the findings will be presented and attendees will be asked to provide feedback, insights, and critique. These sessions represent an important accountability factor for research, giving access to acquired information back to the people who generated it. It also ensures that the interpretation is correct, enabling community members to provide context and insight to situate the findings.

Importantly, this study continued an expectation for community-led and community-informed research in Tucson. Though crime statistics can provide an overview of local challenges, they alone cannot capture the full breadth of people’s definitions of safety or what strategies or interventions specific communities may benefit from. This was an important step to put power back in the community and ensure those most impacted have a stronger voice than others to influence policy that affects their lives.

Visit the Catalyst Grant Program Insights page for more resources and stories about the grantees.   

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Crime and justice analytics Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Justice Policy Center