It’s now commonplace for communities to measure crime and violence data. Communities also often capture resident perspectives and concerns on public safety. The problem is that those two sets of data rarely speak to each other.

This means that the “needs of the communities with the most at stake—those that are subject to high levels of violence and policing, especially Black and disinvested communities, are not sufficiently represented in the real-time public safety decision-making process,” according to a new report by the Government Performance Lab at Harvard Kennedy School. To put it another way, the absence of violence is not necessarily the presence of safety. The specter of violence may follow young people in certain communities and impact such simple decisions as when to leave their homes or where to sit on public transport.

As part of an ongoing collaboration with the City of Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Government Performance Lab (GPL), housed at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, worked with a youth-led organization, World Youth Connect, to conduct interviews and focus groups with 50 young people in the area. They focused on youths based on recommendations from a local Community-First Public Safety Commission to prioritize youth safety.

As a result, they developed a set of measurable indicators that city leaders can test to see whether their actions are contributing to people feeling safer in their community. These indicators are intended to help local public safety agencies and leaders evaluate the ability of young people in these areas to live without being on constant alert for possible danger. The indicators include simple tasks and activities, such as playing outside, visiting neighborhood stores, or using the main commuter train link to the city center.

“The data we've collected is a powerful reflection of Saint Paul youths' perspectives, opinions, and lived experiences around this complex conversation of violence and safety,” said Damonique Sonnier, a GPL Government Innovation Fellow who launched the research with Saint Paul stakeholders. “We found that the presence of violence restricted and deeply affected their behaviors; youth often shared what they are unable to do, rather than what they can do, in their communities. We developed these ‘aspirational’ safety indicators, rooted in youth lived experience, to signal clearly to the local government what truly matters to local youths and what needs to change to create a safer community.”

The City of Saint Paul is exploring ways to implement and test the use of these indicators. Additionally, the researchers believe their research aligns enough with needs articulated by other cities that their novel methods of surveying affected populations can also potentially be adapted and tested elsewhere.

“We developed these ‘aspirational’ safety indicators, rooted in youth lived experience, to signal clearly to the local government what truly matters to local youths and what needs to change to create a safer community.”

Damonique Sonnier, GPL Government Innovation Fellow

The research consisted of interviews and focus groups with 50 young people in Saint Paul who self-identified as “highly impacted by violence”—90% were exposed to a violent incident, 48% had a close friend or relative die from violence, and 44% had a relative incarcerated due to violence.

The respondents were aged 13-24; 58% were Black, 22% were Asian, and the rest belonged to other race and ethnic categories; 56% identified as male, 40% as female, and 4% as non-binary. They were interviewed between August and October 2023.

In a first phase, participants were asked open-ended questions about their experiences with safety, such as “Tell me about your neighborhood” or “Tell me about a recent time you felt unsafe,” according to the report. In a second phase, participants were provided with a list of activities and asked to rank them based on the likelihood that they would engage in them if they lived in a safer neighborhood and were asked what they would do with their friend if they lived in a safer neighborhood.

Excerpts from the interviews indicate how commonplace exposure to violence or other risky behavior, such as drug use, is for many young people, and how accustomed they have become to working around such behaviors.

“It used to be so normalized for me that I literally knew and still know exactly what days I expect violence to take place on, which is Tuesdays and Thursdays,” one 22-year-old respondent told researchers about violent crime in their neighborhood. “It’s become such a heavy thing that ... if it doesn’t happen, that’s weird.”

One frequent user of the Green Line, a light rail in Saint Paul, said that about half the time they would get off at stops and move to a different train car due to drug use. Others described strategically picking their car and seat to avoid dangerous situations.

And one 20-year-old respondent described how even a visit to a social media app would be a reminder of the violence in their neighborhoods. “Every time I opened Instagram, somebody else passed away. ... I just wanted to look at a funny video and laugh,” they said.

Researchers used the survey to compile eight indicators, related to safety in neighborhoods and public transport.

The indicators are:

  • Play outside, including biking, running, or taking walks.
  • Move freely without worry, including visiting nearby stores.
  • Socialize with others, including hanging out with family and friends.
  • Attend social gatherings, such as fairs or cultural events.
  • Go outside at night, including visits to a park or grocery store.
  • Ride the train, including to get to work and visit friends.
  • Sit in the preferred train car and seat.
  • Remain in the same train car for the duration of the ride.

The researchers also included examples of metrics that the municipality could use to see how they are performing in the various indicators. For example, the participation of young people in outdoor sports or recreational activities, collected from rosters or attendance data; and the number of young people riding the train outside of school hours, as measured from swipes of youth metro cards.

The GPL was assisted in its work by a council of five members of World Youth Connect, who co-designed the research approach, helped recruit participants, and facilitated interviews. “I hope that it’s safer, and I hope that people that are higher up than us can see the report or the data that we collected. I hope that they see this, and they make a change, ... just make a new law or something that will keep us safe, especially the youth,” said Mae, a 19-year-old resident of St. Paul and a World Youth Connect member.

Photography by Eric Wheeler, Metro Transit

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