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State expert advises council on formation of Office of Community Safety


Fayetteville City Council members received some direction at a Monday work session on the city’s incipient Office of Community Safety (OCS) — an undefined entity that local elected officials are hoping to develop as a means to reduce Fayetteville’s youth gun violence epidemic and to provide an alternative response to 911 calls for non-violent situations, particularly mental health crises.  

Dr. Gerard Tate is the director of the N.C. Office of Violence Prevention within the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety. During Monday’s work session, Tate facilitated a discussion with Fayetteville’s city council on the OCS. Tate is “one of a handful of experts in violence prevention and community safety in the nation,” Fayetteville Chief of Staff Jodi Phelps said. 

The OCS, which has an initial budget of $250,000, has yet to be staffed or clearly defined. A six-month search for an OCS director has so far been unsuccessful. While the council as a whole is supportive of the OCS, members’ different visions and hopes for it remain uncertain, and Tate’s presentation comes at a time of heightened tensions between council members about the scope of the OCS, timeline for its development and extent of financial investment for the initiative. 

Tate gave a number of suggestions for how the city should proceed with building out the OCS: 

  • Tate stressed the importance of a data-driven, holistic and step-by-step approach in forming the OCS. The city, he said, should examine gun violence data and mental health responses to determine what community safety measures are the most pressing. 
  • Along these lines, Tate urged the city to choose between focusing the OCS on either providing 911 diversion calls (e.g. non-violent emergencies typically handled by police) or violence interruption and intervention programs. He said he did not think the city had the capacity to tackle both of these goals at the same time, but could build one after the other was established.
  • Tate described collaboration with law enforcement and public health agencies as being paramount to having a successful OCS. He emphasized the importance of hiring professional staff who were able to do the legwork needed to build out the OCS in its first few years. 
  • Tate indicated it would take approximately 1-3 years for the city to enact effective violence intervention efforts, such as hiring mental health professionals who can respond to 911 calls, via the OCS. He estimated it would take 3-5 years for the OCS to establish effective violence prevention efforts, such as through programs that seek to prevent youth gun violence with targeted workforce development and community safety programs. 
  • Tate suggested prioritizing the OCS’ future efforts and resources to areas where the most gun violence is happening in the city — such as the identified hotspots where the city is piloting gun-detection software SoundThinking, formerly known as ShotSpotter. 

Tate also emphasized the need to fully fund the office, though he did not provide an ideal budget estimate. 

“If you're going to develop an office of community safety, it has to be embedded in your city as a cabinet-level agency, and it has to receive the support that it needs,” Tate said. “You're asking it to do a very hard job immediately. That should be reflected in staffing and funding.”

Despite outlining numerous difficulties that may arise during the development of the OCS, Tate expressed optimism for Fayetteville’s future community safety office.

“A lot of the cities that I've been to, this is the one I'm most excited about the possibilities, because I see people that are truly invested in wanting to do it,” Tate said. 

Mayor Mitch Colvin emphasized his appreciation for the data-driven approach Tate suggested in determining the trajectory of the OCS. He again cautioned against immediately investing too much in the OCS.

“We have to know whether we're cooking a cake or we're cooking muffins or pie,” Colvin said. “And I think that's where the data is going to serve us to get a roadmap. We know we need something to eat, but we just can't start throwing ingredients into the bowl when we have no idea what we're cooking.”

Council Member Mario Benavente has disagreed with Colvin and Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Jensen about including funding for the office during the upcoming budget cycle. During Monday's discussion, Benavente said funding the office as a means to provide an alternative response to the city’s mental health calls was an urgent need for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. 

“I think that every year or every budget that we fail to establish some actual reactive response teams to substitute what we do with law enforcement, though, is us not plugging up a leak,” Benavente said.

The council asked Tate to analyze preliminary public safety data that could be used to guide the city’s priorities for the OCS. Within the next few months, the council will hold a special meeting to review Tate’s analysis of the data. Tate said he will invite colleagues with expertise in violence prevention to the meeting to give input as well. 

Tate said the city should have enough information, including through conversations with partner public health and law enforcement agencies, to establish a working plan for the OCS by June. 

Here’s what else happened at Monday’s meeting: 

  • Market House: The council voted 7-3 to approve a design for renovations to the historic Market House downtown. The approved changes will make the structure ADA accessible and improve pedestrian safety surrounding the structure.

A rendering of the Market House design approved by the council.
A rendering of the Market House design approved by the council.

  • Wayfinding path system: The council voted unanimously to move forward with a plan for the design, purchase and installation of signs for a “wayfinding” system for Fayetteville’s Center City Parks and Trails and African American Heritage Trail. This wayfinding system aims to guide visitors through the city’s network of public trails, greenways, roadways, sidewalks, parks, plazas and urban areas. 
  • Mazarick Park plan: The council voted unanimously to move forward with the design of a plan that would improve neighborhood connections to Mazarick Park, located on Belvedere Avenue next to the Fayetteville State University campus. The approved recommendations include a multi-use path along the east side of Glenville Lake, a bridge to connect neighborhoods to the existing trails on the west side of the lake and the pursuit of additional neighborhood connections to the park, such as from the FSU campus. 

Contact Evey Weisblat at eweisblat@cityviewnc.com or 216-527-3608. 

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OCS, Office of Community Safety, gun violence, mental health, violence prevention