San Diego Police Department
San Diego police officers walk down Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

COVID-19 is a tragedy. It killed thousands of San Diegans, and millions of people worldwide. It worsened ever-growing inequities in our society. And it turned the world we knew upside down. Whether experienced by a small child who went to kindergarten on Zoom, a front-line worker who had to take extra precautions to stay alive for a normal day at work or a senior who went over a year without seeing their grandkids – COVID ruined a lot of lives.

But as with any tragedy, there comes the opportunity to rebuild. We do not have to go back to life the way it was before. COVID made sure we know better, so now we must do better.

The government’s role in society – and the failures of bad governance – have never been so apparent. As we balance competing priorities in an effort to go “back to normal” where we can, we must be honest with ourselves about the places “normal” wasn’t good enough.

Public safety is one of those areas. It was perfectly normal for some communities to feel safe while others did not.

Public safety is more than policing. Policing does not prevent crime by itself, it is responsive. It’s a critical public service, but it alone will not create safe and healthy communities.

Safe communities are created. Which is why communities that have been historically ignored are less safe. This isn’t a coincidence – it’s a result of decades of bad policy and mismatched priorities. And it’s not something we will be able to fix overnight.

When I say “reimagine public safety” what I mean is a holistic approach to safety that addresses root causes of issues and invests in the health and well-being of communities.

It’s called public safety by environmental design. It’s a well-established best practice that’s been found to reduce crime by double-digit percentages in cities, workplaces and schools. And it’s something we already do (even if we don’t realize it) in most communities north of Interstate 8 but few – if any – south of the 8.

There’s a reason the northern parts of San Diego feel safer and have fewer reported crimes – and it’s not because the people who live there are inherently better or more moral than those of us who live farther south.

It’s because the newer communities were master-planned, and the older ones were continually invested in and updated to create accessible infrastructure, green space, thriving arts and business communities, well-lit sidewalks and streets, high-quality public education, and more.

We can and should do this everywhere. There should not be two San Diegos.

I am asking for a $10 million cut in the police overtime budget this year to begin the process of holistically and proactively addressing public safety in our communities. This is only step one to delivering for the community right now, as we look at more long-term systemic cuts that are controlled by the city’s HR and labor processes. A cut in OT wouldn’t impact jobs or contractual obligations, while allowing us to start down a path of a more holistic approach to public safety.

We should reallocate police funding to nonprofits that address homelessness and run youth success programs; fix and install more streetlights and sidewalks; update our libraries and increase our parks and green spaces; remove graffiti and prioritize code enforcement; invest in the arts and culture and the small businesses that give a community character, pride and employment; trim the trees and weeds to decrease fire risk and remove hiding spots for potential criminals; and start the long-term work of creating local clean energy to create the jobs that will prevent communities from falling into the cycle of poverty and crime.

Let me be clear: This is not a cut in public safety, it’s an investment in crime prevention.

It is time for San Diego to start thinking not only about being a big city, but about being a people-centered city that promises quality of life beyond sunshine and beaches.

Monica Montgomery Steppe is a member of the San Diego City Council, representing District 4.

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