Nov. 2, 2021 2:15 pm

Reimagining safety in Philly’s communities

Leaders from VietLead and Amistad Law Project look more deeply at findings from a survey they conducted last year.

Amistad Law Project's Sean West, Kempis “Ghani” Songster and Kris Henderson in Cedar Park in 2018.

(Photo by Danielle Corcione)

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Philadelphia has been on the verge of an epidemic for the past few months as the homicide rate continues to rise in the city almost daily.

It’s a grim outlook, especially as animosity and fear carried over from the previous year still lingers between law enforcement and Black and brown people.

And with just two months remaining in the year, it’s understandable to question if Philadelphians truly, or if they ever, feel safe in the city.

Last October, members of the Amistad Law Project, Juntos, VietLead, Movement Alliance Project, and other nonprofits within the city came together to answer the question, “what do communities need to feel safe.”

From October to December of 2020, 1,345 Philadelphia residents responded to the Safety We Can Feel Survey.

Here are some key findings:

  • The police are not keeping us safe
    • 75% of respondents think the police are bad at preventing violence in their neighborhood.
    • Of those that had to call the police for help this year, the majority (59%) said the police were unhelpful. Only 10 percent thought they were ‘very helpful’.
  • The city is not prioritizing key services for funding
    • Affordable housing, mental health services, and public schools & community colleges were the essential services respondents said the city prioritized the LEAST for funding. Community violence prevention, drug treatment, and youth recreational programming were also frequent choices.
  • People overwhelmingly support reallocating police funding towards community services
    • Respondents wanted to see more funding going towards centers for mental health and addiction recovery (58%), housing and stability assistance (57%), and education and youth programming (53%) as approaches to addressing violence.
    • 96% of respondents support the decision to reallocate funds from policing to these programs and services.

Most surveys were completed online, while some were administered in-person and via phone calls from community organizers.

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Nancy Dung Nguyen.

“Conversations about re-imagining safety need to be had with all communities — but I think for Asian, and Southeast Asian refugee communities in particular, which were historically resettled in resource-deprived neighborhoods — the question of ‘what does safety actually look like?’ becomes even more salient,” said Nancy Dung Nguyen, the executive director of VietLead,  in 2021 as she looked at the survey responses.

“Oftentimes, folks in our communities have knee-jerk reactions wanting more police presence, for example, but when you have deeper conversations about what their interactions with police have been like — you find there’s a lot of frustration, disillusion, and distrust — not just in the police, but in government.”This makes sense, Dung Nguyen added, citing that there is a language barrier, or a delay in service, or people worry about getting pulled into the court systems —and not being able to navigate any of it.

There needs to be a reimagining of community safety from the ground up and the survey, Dung Nguyen said, was the beginning of this work at a mass scale.

“If there were “alternatives” to police — what would you want that to look like, you are helping people name what they actually want,” Dung Nguyen said. “We wanted to be part of that conversation, and to be having that conversation in collaboration with other communities of color felt powerful and important, not only timely.”

Dung Nguyen added that she thinks the survey should be expanded and that she and others should continue drilling down on the question of alternatives, and how to build and rebuild community trust.

According to the survey’s website,  the distribution of the survey itself was set out to be a community effort since internet access can create a barrier to hearing from the public. This is why community organizers distributed the survey in churches and at community meetings, in families’ and respondents’ native languages, and some even made phone calls and helped people take it over the phone.

“We wanted to have information about what people believe keeps us safe, not just anecdotal information but a larger pool of information from people. We also wanted to be able to show policymakers that it’s not just progressives who want something different but people from all over the city,” Amistad Law Project Executive Director Kris Henderson said.

“We are an explicitly abolitionist organization and believe that part of that work is to envision and work towards alternatives to carceral systems,” Henderson said.“The purported reason for these systems is often safety but we also know that these systems don’t keep us safe. We wanted to explore how Philadelphians think of safety and what they believe keeps us safe.”

Henderson added that Amistad and the other organizations involved with the survey about what people believe keeps us safe, not just anecdotal information but a larger pool of information from people.

“We also wanted to be able to show policymakers that it’s not just progressives who want something different but people from all over the city,” Henderson said. “It’s clear that people want something other than what’s being offered. The city must put resources into our communities and into experiments that allow us to reimagine safety — like violence interrupter programs across the city.”

The Amistad Law Project hasn’t changed any processes as a result of the survey but now that the survey has been available for some time, Henderson hopes that with its findings that a lot of people want something different and that if everyone works together, they can win and get the resources that their communities need.

“To be clearer, our hypothesis has always been that police don’t keep our communities safe and that we need resources directed to other things to make our communities stronger,” Henderson said.

“So our campaign continues to be aimed at advocating for resources to be directed away from the Philadelphia Police Department and towards things like Mobile Crisis Units which respond to mental health crises without law enforcement.”


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