ARTICLES (click here for a printable PDF version)
BUILDING RESPONSIVE COMMUNITIES
by Bonnie Bucqueroux
Helping neighbors help neighbors when disaster strikes
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should remind conservatives and liberals alike that community – not government - is our best first line of defense if disaster strikes. Whether the catastrophe is a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake – or a pandemic like bird flu or a terrorist attack, we all want and need neighbors who can offer a helping hand when the bad times hit.
Yet for many of us, our neighbors are little more than strangers. Rich or poor, we find ourselves living among people we barely acknowledge beyond a friendly wave. The challenge we all face is how to develop realistic and effective community-based plans for our neighborhoods before calamity strikes.
A comprehensive Neighborhood Emergency Response Plan would identify the person who will check on Mrs. Smith, the elderly woman who is blind and has diabetes. Then there’s the single mom whose baby needs formula and diapers, the person who is deaf or the young boy who has seizures. As Hurricane Katrina also reminds us, we shouldn’t wait until disaster is looming before developing a plan to make sure that everyone who needs help get its.
The plan should also include an asset map of community strengths. Of vital importance are the people with potentially life-saving skills – active and retired doctors, nurses, military medics and emergency medical personnel. Is there a dentist in the neighborhood who can at least offer temporary relief for that painful broken tooth? Is there a police officer to help maintain security?
Then there are the practical skills. Who can help put a temporary patch on the hole in the roof? Who knows how to shut off the water before the pipes freeze? Is there an electrician who can shut off the power to the downed power line?
An asset map would also pinpoint people who can help with the basics of food, clothing and shelter. Maybe someone with emergency rations left over from Y2K would be willing to share with others. Should we create and maintain a neighborhood emergency pantry? Is there someone with a generator who would be willing to take in the man in the wheelchair for a few days during an ice storm? Who can be relied on to share warm clothing and blankets? Who makes sure that every resident that needs help is checked each day?
Sadly, few of us live in neighborhoods that have such a plan already in place. But the good news is that there is a growing realization we all need one. Better yet, we have a model in place with community policing that can be easily and effectively harnessed to the task.
Building a Neighborhood Emergency Response Plan
The cornerstone of community policing is that nothing can outperform dedicated people working together to solve neighborhood problems. In most cases, crime has been the catalyst to bring the police, community leaders and neighborhood residents together as partners. Community policing’s collaborative problem-solving approach also offers long-term solutions because it not only addresses the immediate crisis but the underlying dynamics that allow problems to persist. As this suggests, community policing provides a proven framework for new proactive efforts to build a Neighborhood Emergency Response Plan.
Why police? First, the majority of American communities already claim to have some form of community policing and it has proven its merit. Second, the police remain the only government social service agency open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included. People will turn to them first in an emergency, so they are also the best candidates to offer assistance in planning. As first responders, they know what it takes to help manage catastrophes and they can help communities build the infrastructure they need to do a good job.
Perhaps the real question is, if not the police, then who?
This is not to say that the police alone should do the heavy lifting. They can be particularly helpful in recruiting other community partners who can help – the schools, the churches, other government agencies and non-profit organizations. However, the bottom line is that a Neighborhood Emergency Response Plan is a plan built by and for the neighbors themselves. (And don’t forget to keep the media informed so that they can tell others.)
Neighborhood emergency preparedness and Homeland Security
Another crucial reason for the police to be the catalyst in neighborhood emergency planning is that building trust and sharing information between people and police are integral to Homeland Security. Community policing is effective in dealing with crime because people not only trust their police well enough to share information but the process of working with the community allows residents to share their concerns informally without being singled out for retribution.
In this era, preventing terrorism requires that various strands of information and intelligence must come together quickly, so that appropriate authorities can identify and assess threats within our communities. So strategies that build mutual trust and collaboration between people and their police are essential.
As the late Robert Trojanowicz often said when he was urging communities to adopt community policing, “Until we are all safe, no one is truly safe.” Policing for the 21st century means providing people the tools they need to make themselves safe from all the threats and problems we face.
Bonnie Bucqueroux was associate director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University during the tenure of the late Dr. Robert Trojanowicz. She continues to provide consulting services to police through her consulting firm, Policing.com.
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