What we do
Reimagining Community Safety:
A Participatory Action Research Study in Tucson, Arizona
Over a third (37.5%) of respondents report that they and/or a family member has experienced incarceration (juvenile detention, jail, prison, or immigration detention). This is a reflection of Arizona’s ranking as having the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the US. This is what “mass incarceration” means—more and more Arizonans are being personally impacted by the criminal punishment system. A 2018 report from FWD.us found that 1 in 13 Arizonans has a current or prior felony conviction.
We see significant differences when we look at geography. About half of respondents in Wards 1, 3 and 5 all say that either they themselves or a family member (or both) have experienced incarceration, while only about one-third of respondents in Wards 2, 4, and 6 have had that experience.
For too long, the concept of safety has been narrowly defined in the context of crime and punishment: We wait until something terrible happens, determine who is responsible, and punish them. But safety is so much more than simply not having your car broken into. If you are facing eviction, are you safe? If your child is experiencing substance use disorder or in a mental health crisis, is she safe?
What our research reveals is that true safety is not just physical, but emotional and interpersonal. It is tied to health and wellness. It is having your basic needs met, your problems solved, and your trusted relationships maintained. And it is created through community-level activism just as much as government institutions, if not more so.
Our goal for the Reimagining Community Safety (RCS) Survey was to produce research and data that could inform and shape policies by uplifting the voices of those most affected by decisions on community safety on what they believe would improve their safety and well-being, especially focusing on the perspectives of those who live in under-resourced and over-policed areas of Tucson.
A total of 8 community Co-Researchers were recruited to assist with survey collection. The survey consisted of 69 questions, administered in English and Spanish, in each of Tucson’s 6 Wards (both online and in-person) between November 2021 and August 2022.
SURVEY DEVELOPMENT & DATA COLLECTION
The RCS Survey was made available online in November 2021 with collection running through August 2022. In alignment with the responsibility of research-in respect described above, the survey design and distribution process was both democratic in nature and relevant to the communities of Tucson. In total, 1,206 people participated in the survey with more than 100 collected from each of the Wards.
The survey participants were generally representative of the overall Tucson population in terms of demographics and median household income. Those with higher levels of education were slightly overrepresented. The median age was 45. More than half of our sample (59.4%) identified as female, another 32.4% identified as male, and 4.7% of the remaining individuals identified as non binary. A small but not insignificant proportion identified as transgender–34 participants, or 2.9%.
Overall, most of the people who live in Tucson report being happy living here. More than half agreed that Tucson is both a good place to work (57.1%) and a good place to retire (58.1%). It is worth noting, however, that the average person of color (POC) reports being 5.62% less satisfied in their quality of life in Tucson than the average White person, a disparity which was mostly associated with the experiences of Black and Latinx respondents.
The RCS Survey asked respondents their perception regarding five key public service areas, and whether they felt these services had improved, worsened, or stayed the same over the last two years.
Issues related to housing are of tremendous concern to Tucsonans across the board. An astonishing 63% of respondents said that in the last two years, access to affordable housing has worsened in Tucson; another 21% said that access has stayed the same, while only 5% believed that it has improved. One bright spot in the survey is Tucson’s public transportation, which 28% of respondents said had improved over the last two years and 43% said has stayed the same, compared to only 16% who believe it has worsened.
A resounding 66% of individuals surveyed rated Tucson’s access to medical and mental health care as “Very Poor” or “Poor”; another 16% of individuals rated it as “Good,” while a minuscule 0.03% found it to be “Very Good.”
Thirty-eight percent (38%) of respondents evaluated the quality of Tucson’s public schools as “Poor,” while another 29% judged it to be “Fair.” Forty-four percent (44%) of respondents either somewhat or strongly disagreed with the idea that Tucson public schools are preparing children well for the future.
INTERACTIONS WITH THE CRIMINAL PUNISHMENT SYSTEM
While only 28% of all survey respondents say they had been questioned, charged or arrested by police when they had not committed a crime, we see significant changes when isolating by race and ethnicity. Forty-three percent (43%) of Native American respondents reported having had interactions with police, a rate over 1.5x greater than that of the general response. Black respondents reported an even higher rate, where 51% of those surveyed had been questioned at least once by police. Meanwhile, Latinx and White respondents indicated relatively lower rates of 31% and 25%, respectively.
Overall, people reported distrust in the criminal justice system, primarily the courts and the police. Five questions specifically asked about the confidence people have in those institutions to equitably address issues of race, substance abuse and mental health disorders. In all of them, most respondents expressed little to no confidence. And the survey demonstrated consistently that people of color from all income levels had less trust in police and courts in ensuring equal treatment under the law.
WHAT TUCSONANS WANT
Three questions in the survey solicited participant’s opinions about which issues most concern them and which kinds of
programs or investments they feel would improve safety and wellbeing in their neighborhoods.
Homelessness was by far the greatest concern expressed by Tucsonans. Twenty-one percent (21%) of all respondents (253 people) identified homelessness as their primary community concern, and it remained the top concern across an expansive variety of demographic backgrounds. An additional 11% named “housing” as their top concern.
Particularly striking is the fact that the second-highest concern reported by Tucson residents was “inequality” (12%). This reflects not only a consensus among Tucsonans that there is widespread inequality in our community but an acknowledgement that this problem must be addressed. Even those who benefit from a place of relative privilege–White people and those of higher socioeconomic status, with higher levels of educational attainment–recognize that others in our community are being treated unfairly and want to do something about it.
Notably, just 4% of respondents identified crime as a prominent issue in their community. And only 4 out of the entire 1,206 responses named “public safety” as a top concern.
The top three resources participants wanted to see more of were:
- affordable housing (52.1%)
- affordable and accessible medical/mental care (37.4%)
- better resourced schools (27%).
Similarly, participants identified the three most important solutions for reducing racial and socio-economic inequities as:
- community-centered alternatives to incarceration (44%)
- more accessible mental health and substance abuse services (39%)
- more affordable housing (36%).
Tucson residents by and large do not view law enforcement as a solution to the problems they face. Only 4% stated that they want “more police” in their communities. Of the total 46 individuals who named this as a resource, 30 identified as White, 9 were Latinx, 3 were Native American, 2 were Black, and one identified as Asian/Pacific Islander.
Tucsonans love their city. They largely feel that it is a good place to live, work and retire. They affirm a generally positive quality of life. And they demonstrate that they care for one another and feel a sense of responsibility to tackle the challenges that disproportionately disadvantage some members of our community.
The results of the Reimagining Community Safety Survey clearly demonstrate that Tucson residents recognize the importance of addressing people’s basic needs as part of a holistic approach to creating community safety. They prioritized the issues that impact our community most acutely housing and economic security, education, and fairness and equal opportunity for all.
Imagine a safety budget entirely focused on education, wellness initiatives and infrastructure in an under-resourced neighborhood. What kind of futures could we create there? What new leaders could spring from those streets? We invite you to join us to discover the answer together.