Centering Public Safety and Justice in the Renewal of Democracy

February 03, 2022
Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud /
The rule of law and public safety is sometimes taken for granted in established liberal democracies as part of the normal operating procedure.

Indeed, an independent and well-functioning justice system is an essential guardian of a country’s constitution and fundamental rights. As journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria notes, the effective and impartial enforcement of the rule of law is crucial to democracy as it “limits power” in a political system which is fundamentally about the democratic “accumulation and use of power.” The very promise of liberal democracy is that the system allows residents to feel safe and express themselves fully regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or age.    

This promise is at risk throughout the world. In the United States, the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, George Floyd, and countless others in just the last few years serve as tragic examples that liberal democracy’s promise of safety regardless of race is not always kept. The deaths catalyzed a global discussion on racial injustice, intensified the public debate about racial inequality, police brutality, and reforms of the justice system, and triggered a further decline in trust of public institutions in the United States and heightened attention to entrenched racism in Europe.

Yet, despite the intense spotlight on policing practices, public safety and justice are rarely associated with growing calls for reforms needed for democratic renewal. For example, at the Biden administration’s recent Summit for Democracy, the main themes only obliquely referred to public safety through the auspices of protecting human rights.

In the United States specifically, democratic reform efforts are usually talked about through issues like voter protection and expansion, structural issues like money in politics and gerrymandering, and citizen empowerment efforts such as civic education. A recent bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission report, Our Common Purpose, produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, listed 31 recommendations needed to urgently repair our democracy: none was related to public safety or justice.

Public safety is too often treated as a public good and not a democratic right. This must change. In this vein, public safety and justice stands out in the four pillars of research comprising the German Marshall Fund’s Cities Fortifying Democracy project. The other three—effective governance, elections and voting, and local journalism—seem logical; all staples of an effective democracy and receiving needed attention as democracy increasingly decays in the United States, in Europe, and across the world.

2020 Protest in US
Photo credit: Ron Adar /

The low levels of trust that Americans have in their public safety system are undercutting the very values necessary for democracy to thrive, or at least survive. In the immediate wake of the racial justice protests after George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, Gallup found that public trust in the police dropped to 48 percent, marking the first time in the 27-year trend that this trust fell below 50 percent. But this distrust of policing and justice falls starkly along racial lines, calling into question democracy’s promise that all will be safe and served equally. The same survey showed that while a majority of white adults trusted the police (56 percent), just 19 percent of Black Americans exhibited confidence. For democracy to work, the public must believe that the officials entrusted to protect them have their best interests and well-being at heart. If this is not the case, democracy will struggle to thrive, or even survive, irrespective of how effective the governing, how packed the voting polls, or how robust local journalism may be.  

The low levels of trust that Americans have in their public safety system are undercutting the very values necessary for democracy to thrive, or at least survive.

As democracy scholar Daniel Ziblatt notes, “The challenge of sustaining multiethnic democracies is one of the most significant challenges facing democracies of all types today.” The United States has an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world how to effectively ensure that different racial groups all feel respected and heard. The discrepancies in racial trust toward the police, however, is one of the biggest challenges faced in attempting to secure this democratic future, not only for the United States, but for liberal democracies around the world.

Noting these tensions, the Cities Fortifying Democracy project recently gathered city police chiefs, district court judges, city court directors, non-profit leaders, and other public safety representatives from six US and six European cities to discuss the importance of incorporating public safety and justice into the discussion of how cities can bring democracy to the next level. The main challenges highlighted in the discussion included winning the trust of citizens, diversifying the police forces, ensuring this diversity is not solely in the lower levels of the police force but in leadership as well, and ensuring transparency and accountability. They note that many residents are not always well-informed about the roles of various government institutions, frequently not knowing who to hold accountable when issues of safety go awry, and so they advocate for expanded civics education. Frankly, they want to help save democracy.

Bronx, NY
Photo credit: Steve Sanchez Photos /

Many police chiefs are attempting to tackle these challenges, but they must all also acknowledge that police departments themselves have played harmful roles in degrading public trust and abiding racist policies. In doing so, police can and must see their dual role of keeping the peace and building public trust as integral to a healthy democracy.

The tensions around these issues are high and not easily or immediately solvable. Police chiefs in our conversation argued that officers are expected to solve problems that are far beyond their scope of work. They assert that cops are put into situations where the problems are the product of a long history of institutional racism, poor education, and persistent poverty that the police did not cause or have the power to fix. Representatives outside of the police system indicated that they believe that the institution of policing is too broken in their respective cities and countries to lead to substantive and effective reform.

A range of measures is needed to tackle this crisis of democracy. Participants of the roundtable offered some examples. Two interventions are taking place in the same city, from two different angles. Chief Adrian Diaz of Seattle has attempted to re-imagine policing in Seattle through an explicit relational approach. This includes a training program for new officers that teaches social and emotional learning and how to effectively interact with residents, focusing on de-escalating crises through clear communication. While Chief Diaz is focused on improving relations between the community and the police, he also notes that morale in the department itself is low and is focusing efforts on how to inspire his own staff as well.

Omari Salisbury, the founder of Converge Media, a Black-led and focused media outlet in Seattle, believes that trusting the police starts with mutual honesty and accountability. He wants to tell the real story of public safety, not from sound bites or campaign slogans, but by holding Chief Diaz’s feet to the fire on policies and outcomes and inviting him to explain his policies in public venues. While Seattle’s approach to public safety is not perfect, Chief Diaz and Salisbury frequently interact in public forums, mutually recognizing the importance of conversation and collaboration in rebuilding trust for the sake of a healthier democracy and safer outcomes in the city.

While US police forces have been under siege, a global exchange of best practices can also provide inspiration and innovation. For example, in a recent report, Senior Program Coordinator at GMF Cities Lauren Burke noted the lessons that the United States could learn from the reforms of the previously highly militarized police force in Northern Ireland. While issues remain, the country launched significant reforms to rebuild public trust, including renaming and rebranding the force, pursuing aggressive affirmative action policies to diversify the police, creating a representative police oversight board, and focusing on community policing.  

There is not just one solution to creating public safety and justice systems that protect citizens in an equitable fashion and engender public trust. But in this moment of deep democratic decline, centering public safety systems in the overall fight for the values of democracy is critical. Residents must trust that their cities value their livelihoods and safety above all in order for democracy to survive. 

GMF Cities, with the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, is leading a two-year, transatlantic multicity cohort to explore and advance city practices in strengthening democracy. The Cities Fortifying Democracy project examines city innovations in governing, voting, and elections, public safety and justice, and local journalism.

Cities Fortifying Democracy

The Cities Fortifying Democracy project is a first-of-its-kind cohort of American and European cities working together in teams to collaborate on what cities do and can do to strengthen the foundation of democracy from the ground up.