How Emergency Management Became a Dangerous Safety Net for Cities

Divestment in critical public services has left many low-income communities overpoliced and underprotected.

America’s collective reexamination of policing and the criminal justice system reached a fever pitch last summer, leading to calls to defund the police. The argument, while divisive, points to the critical issue of community investment. It has long been thought that increased police presence delivers better public safety outcomes. This theory has since been consistently disproven, leading many to criticize the disparity in resource investment across various neighborhoods. Many low-income communities are subjected to emergency management and divestment in proactive, sustaining public services, leading to poor safety and health outcomes.

Listen: Reimagining America’s public safety infrastructure.


Eric Cadora is the founder and director of the Justice Mapping Center and recently wrote a piece about the dangers of emergency management. He says divestment in social services often triggers an overinvestment in policing.

“When talking about overreach of law enforcement and other criminal justice institutions … we find an overcompensation for the lack of civil society infrastructures and health networks that are real forms of safety,” says Cadora on the genesis of emergency management. According to Cadora, communities without proper social and institutional investment are often beholden to the government’s punitive and unsatisfactory emergency services.

However, public perception of government spending and public safety is shifting due to the pandemic. “… [The] COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a wide swath of Americans to crisis circumstances that people in low-income communities are exposed to every day,” says Cadora.

Going forward, Cadora says public safety policy should involve community stakeholders and be executed across government agencies. He insists that a move away from emergency management is within reach and requires supporting communities and individuals currently being constrained by widespread divestment. “Even without huge new investment … there are so many more effective ways to invest existing resources … in ways that are much more strategically effective,” says Cadora.

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