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Troy L. Wheeler

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Strategy: Expanded Access To Public Officials

Strategy Broaden opportunities for citizens to express their concerns about crime, safety, and other issues in discussions with public . . .

Strategy

Broaden opportunities for citizens to express their concerns about crime, safety, and other issues in discussions with public officials.

Crime Problem Addressed

Even at the city or community level, Americans too often feel that their elected and appointed leaders are distant, inaccessible, and unaware of "real people's" concerns. As a result, citizens often lose the sense that they have a stake in the workings of their communities and that they can and should have a role in improving safety. Similarly, police and other public officials are often unaware of certain situations residents are facing. If people can be heard, problems that might otherwise be overlooked can be efficiently addressed.

Key Components

Citizens can address questions, comments, and concerns to local public officials in any number of ways, from town meetings and office visits to personal letters and call-in radio and television programs. To ensure broad participation, public events must be publicized well in advance. Another critical component of program design is implementing systems to ensure that citizen input will receive the attention and feedback it deserves.

Key Partnerships

The key partnership for achieving this goal is between public officials and citizens. Since one elected official cannot handle every concern, it is critical that citizen queries and concerns be relayed quickly to the appropriate government and public safety representatives. Elected officials must work closely with local agencies and police departments to ensure a timely and efficient response to priority problems and concerns.

Potential Obstacles

There are obvious constraints on how much time elected officials can devote to meeting with the public. Additionally, public events such as town meetings and call-in programs require considerable work and advance planning. Finally, unrealistic expectations can cloud citizens' opinions of local government as a force for good. Reconnecting the people to the process requires a better understanding of issues, policies, and government capabilities on both sides.

Signs of Success

People like to feel that they are a part of the process and that political leaders and policymakers are genuinely interested in their opinions and concerns. A nationally televised presidential debate in 1992 during which ordinary citizens asked questions of George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot attracted the largest television audience in U.S. history, beating the M*A*S*H finale and the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas. On the state level, Arizona recently coordinated a statewide interactive electronic town meeting to present the findings of a special commission on juvenile justice. The result? Capacity turnouts at "downlink" sites across the state and high rates of participation and follow-up from residents offering advice and opinions on a wide range of issues.

Applying the Strategy

In Corpus Christi, Texas, a year-long series of citizen town hall meetings played a critical role in the development of the city's Texas Cities Action Plan that provided objectives for preventing crime. "Our goal was to get input from every segment of the community--all income levels and all neighborhoods--and to offer a sounding board for people to express their opinions and concerns," recalls Larry Olivarez of the Corpus Christi Police Department. The meetings were held weekly in neighborhoods throughout the city and featured the mayor, police officials, and community leaders.

From 350 Tested Strategies to Prevent Crime: A Resource for Municipal Agencies and Community Groups

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