Opinion: Can nonprofits help keep the peace in New York City?

The sector can help solve the problem of increased crime, while striking a balance between policing and community safety.

Greg Berman writes on how the nonprofit sector can help solve the problem of increased crime.

Greg Berman writes on how the nonprofit sector can help solve the problem of increased crime. Jack Berman

A significant increase in shootings, along with visible signs of disorder on the streets, has returned crime to the forefront of political conversation in New York City.  Recent polling suggests that New Yorkers are deeply concerned about safety on the subway – and this was before the mass shooting on the N train in Brooklyn. 

Of course, the conversation about crime in New York City doesn’t take place in a vacuum – it is happening against a backdrop of widespread racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Along the way, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed a truth hiding in plain sight: racial disparities are pervasive within the American criminal justice system. 

Two imperatives – the need for an immediate response to increased crime and a desire to reduce the harmful impacts of the criminal justice system on Black Americans in particular – will shape the politics of crime in New York and other cities for the foreseeable future.   

How should we respond to the current moment? Is it possible to reduce neighborhood disorder and violence without resorting to the kinds of heavy-handed enforcement tactics that have driven racial disparities and alienated large swaths of the public in the past?  

Some activists have argued that we should abolish the police and instead invest in community nonprofits, such as New York’s network of Cure Violence programs, to help keep the peace.  This perspective is bolstered by the work of sociologist Patrick Sharkey who, in his book Uneasy Peace, documented that the existence of local nonprofits has helped to reduce violent crime.

I am a big believer in the nonprofit sector, having spent my whole career within it. To create durable safety, we clearly need the close-to-the-ground knowledge and flexibility in responding to emerging problems of nonprofit organizations. 

But we also need to be honest about the limitations of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits have an important role to play, but they are not a realistic substitute for policing. Nonprofit agencies are prone to capture both by ideology (they skew left) and by personality (many are dependent upon a single charismatic individual), which may make them unrepresentative of the very communities they seek to serve. The way that they are funded also introduces vulnerabilities and distorts their behavior, forcing many organizations to focus on survival rather than what is best for the entire city. Most nonprofits simply aren’t accountable in the way that government is. 

Of course, the government also has significant flaws. It may have more resources and a broader perspective than the typical nonprofit, but it is rarely well-organized and it often falls prey to short-term thinking because of the demands of politicians who must constantly worry about the next election. Government also tends to be subject to a litany of rules and constraints that promote bureaucratic bloat instead of outstanding performance. 

As New York City figures out how to respond to the current crisis, it should be attempting to get the best of both worlds, combining the convening and funding power of government with the greater flexibility and local knowledge of the nonprofit sector.  

Perhaps a good place to start would be with a small experiment, creating a new, quasi-public entity that would be charged with promoting safety in a single neighborhood or police precinct.  This new vehicle – call it a neighborhood justice alliance – would be responsible for ensuring greater responsiveness and accountability on the part of the criminal justice system. It would also seek to prevent crime by helping local residents reclaim public spaces, organize park clean-ups, provide summer employment opportunities for teens, and other initiatives. 

This would be a novel experiment for New York, but there are some precursors. The Central Park Conservancy has shown that it is possible for a nonprofit agency to help revitalize public space. Business improvement districts, including the Times Square Alliance, have been crucial to combatting disorder in many neighborhoods.  And the success of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn in helping to reduce local offending and improve public trust in justice offers evidence that a local nonprofit organization can help marshal the energies of the justice system in positive ways.  

Mayor Eric Adams has staked his mayoralty on reducing crime. He has also sought to foster greater public-private partnership. Here is an opportunity for him to combine these two core passions. By creating a pilot neighborhood justice alliance that will engage the nonprofit sector, government, and residents in forging a new response to local crime, the Adams administration can help improve public safety and keep New York on the cutting edge of court reform nationally.