Urban Wire Understanding the Harms of Police Violence Can Help Build Community Safety
Susan Nembhard, Rudy Perez, Jahnavi Jagannath
Display Date

Protesters at a rally.

The United States relies on police for safety, but data show police inflict violence against residents at alarming rates. Black and brown people, people with low incomes, unhoused people, and undocumented people experience the highest rates of such violence. Yet laws and general officer codes of conduct protect many police officers who take violent action.

Despite officers’ various roles, on average, their training does not prepare them for all the situations they will confront. They typically spend about 20 percent of basic training on firearms, self-defense, and use of force. This is a disproportionate amount of time considering their many other duties (including engaging in routine traffic stops, issuing traffic citations, responding to a wide variety of emergency and nonemergency service calls, interviewing witnesses and victims, logging evidence, and testifying in court). When they are on the job, officers rely on the tools and skills they learn during training, which often means they respond to crises using force and violence.

Amid an increasingly urgent national conversation that police violence is a public safety and health issue, understanding the amount of harm taking place in communities is more important than ever. To bolster their understanding, policymakers can turn the robust evidence that exists into action and center civilian voices to learn more about the violence they experience and get their opinions on effective alternative safety solutions.

What is police violence?

Though police violence is labeled differently, it meets the same or similar classifications as civilian violence:

Reimagining public safety requires being informed by the communities affected by police violence. 

For years, local policymakers have inflated criminal legal system funding by defunding public school systems and investing in incarceration , deprioritizing mental health care and incarcerating those with mental illnesses, and perpetuating the cycle of housing instability and incarceration. Funding decisions such as these continue to support for policing without recognition or discussion of the violence experienced in communities at the hands of law enforcement.

Recognizing and acknowledging that police contribute to violence—and that this violence disproportionately affects Black and brown Americans—is a first step toward change in policy, budgets, and community safety decisionmaking. Another key step is including the people most affected by this violence in conversations and decisionmaking.

And lastly, if policymakers want to lessen the violence experienced by communities, considering alternative safety initiatives is essential. By addressing risk factors of crime outside of law enforcement, cities get to the roots of harm and create community safety while reducing reliance on the criminal legal system.

Making evidence-based decisions and centering civilian voices are the first steps toward achieving effective alternative safety solutions.

Special thanks to Lily Robin for the additional feedback and assistance in the development of this work.


The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

Show your support for research and data that ignite change.  

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Community public safety investment Policing and community safety Racial and ethnic disparities Racial disparities in criminal justice
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Related content
Media Name: gettyimages-1162635888_crop.jpg
What would it take to tackle the compound harms of systemic racism and ableism in the criminal legal system?
Media Name: strengthening20non-police20safety.jpg
The nationwide uprising against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer sparked new conversations about the scope and role of policing. Evidence shows that there are a variety of promising solutions to address violence that do not rely on police, and a...