In an unequal America, what should public safety look like?

In discussion with UChicago experts, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro looks beyond police reform

Cities across America need to commit significant financial resources to address the systemic challenges facing Black and brown communities to create more equitable and safer neighborhoods for all residents, according to University of Chicago experts and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

In a recent event hosted by the UChicago Urban Network, Castro spoke with UChicago scholars Sharon Fairley (Law School) and Franklin Cosey-Gay (Crown Family School) discussing how to build trust and equity in historically disadvantaged communities. Doing so, they said, will require a combination of approaches, including civilian police oversight and reform, public health-centered approaches to violence prevention and ending segregated housing policies and practices.

“We have to be better about investing in those neighborhoods that have been written off for too long because they are Black or because they are brown and build them up for the benefit of the people who live there,” said Castro, a former U.S. presidential candidate. “I wouldn’t give any city in America an A-plus when it comes to doing those things. Until we connect policy dots … you’re going to see this inequality continuing to grow and the life prospects of people who would have wonderful potential to not be met.”

Speaking together on May 26—a day after the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and shortly before the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre—the panelists addressed the legacy of racism in America and its impact on cities today. In a conversation moderated by NPR national political reporter Juana Summers, they warned that “public safety” should not just be about policing or the carceral system.

Fairley, a professor from practice at the Law School whose research focuses on civilian oversight of police departments, noted that changes to police unions, more transparency and accountability over police departments and formalized mechanisms for community feedback are critical in improving policing.

She said that while policing is “inherently local” and that municipalities cannot rely on changes at the federal level alone, if she could see one change enacted in federal law it would be “more federal funding going to cities to explore ways to provide public safety services that do not involve armed policemen responding.”

Castro suggested that the federal government could adopt a “carrot and stick” approach to reforming policing, creating a program modeled after an Obama-era Department of Education initiative called “Race to the Top,” which would recognize and reward the best performing departments, while also tying federal funding of police departments to an adoption of basic standards.

Fairley acknowledged how much work is left to be done and how intertwined so many challenges are across traditionally under-invested-in communities.

“There is no panacea for this,” Fairley said in addressing challenges in housing, education, economic opportunities, and public safety issues in communities of color. “Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but the only way to do it is to recognize the breadth of the problem, to break it down into bits and to solve it.”

Cosey-Gay, the executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, said that city has failed its Black residents for more than a century. This legacy of neglect, he said, traces back to the 1919 race riots—and persists in the refusal to acknowledge how racism has shaped the city, and the failure to pursue policies that make the city a place where Black families can live.

“We cannot begin to have a dialogue about change until we really acknowledge the pain and the hurt and the harm—the financial harm, the interpersonal harm, the structural harm—that has happened, and have a commitment to reinvesting in those communities in ways that are equitable,” Cosey-Gay said.

“What are we doing to actually encourage African American families to remain? It’s an indictment really over the past 100 years in terms of the type of environment that Chicago has made for Black families … We have a lot to overcome.”