On Monday, Mayor Eric Johnson responded to the city’s spike in violent crime by creating the Task Force on Safe Communities. To co-chair the group, he named Alan Cohen, who heads the Child Poverty Action Lab (CPAL); long-time community activist and LULAC member René Martinez; and Rev. Michael Bowie, of Far East Dallas’ Saint Luke Community United Methodist Church.
Four days later, on Friday, Cohen sat down with me at CPAL’s concrete-floored co-working space, GoodWork, in South Dallas. We talked about the work he’s dedicated himself to—reducing poverty in Dallas—and about how violence ties into that work. We talked about the complexity of the issue at hand. We talked about how the task force might play into police efforts to reduce violence. And, to the extent that Cohen would speak to it, we talked about how the task force’s efforts will play out the rest of the year. Here’s the conversation, lightly edited:
Tell me about the work you do here.
Our organization, the Child Poverty Action Lab, works with a variety of different government agencies, community groups, residents, and stakeholders in Dallas with the goal of how do we reduce poverty in Dallas by 50 percent in a single generation. We focus on a whole series of outcomes and root causes of poverty and are trying to bring together collaborative efforts against really tangible solutions couched in data. We launched in November of last year.
Do you study the connection between poverty and areas of violence? Police have established these eight areas of high violence in the city.
The research indicates that there’s a deep intersection between poverty and crime. We could ask ourselves the question, do we have so much crime because of poverty? Or does crime perpetuate poverty? We think the answer is yes to both of those. In our organizational work, we focus a lot on the science of trauma for children, and exposure to violence increases what we call adverse childhood experiences with toxic stress, which has lasting implications for children into adulthood. We also spent a lot of time focused on the impact of incarceration not only for children but on children’s parents on long-term outcomes for kids. There’s a lot of different places where crime and poverty intersect. It is a focus-area for the organization.
I’m not expecting you to have the perfect answer, but what do you do about that? Is that something you’re hoping to get at with this task force?
I hope that we will be taking a really methodical approach in understanding what are we hearing from community members and the lived experience of those in Dallas. But also, what do we see around the country as practices programs, policies, that data is showing us is actually contributing to public safety and making measurable differences in public safety with interventions that go beyond policing? When you take on a complex issue, often the approach is let’s break this down into smaller and smaller pieces so that you can have actionable and achievable milestones. At the end of the day, we’re going to be successful if we see this violence start to drop.
You’ve mentioned the word data a couple of times now. The mayor has said he wants this to be a data-driven effort. Do you feel you have the data you need right now to do the job? Or is part of this identifying what you still need to gather?
Yes to both. I think there’s a lot of data and different insights that can be accessed immediately pretty easily. I think there’s a lot more data collection to be had. Fundamentally I believe that good data helps you ask better and better questions. It doesn’t automatically give you the answer just because you see some numbers.
What else would you like to know that data can answer?
Well again, I think it’s going to be important that we do things like scan the country for the very best interventions that are truly showing change. You want to understand what are the conditions that have allowed for those different types of practices to be effective. And then you’ve got to understand local conditions in as broad and as robust of a local fact base as possible to understand, are the same conditions in place in Dallas? Where are the conditions different? What barriers might we face locally that might be different than other places in the country? And you try to bring those things together.
What I want to be clear on is that I don’t view community feedback and data as two completely separate things. I think it’s so, so important that we are talking to many, many stakeholders and trying to understand the patterns that we see. What are the underlying barriers where we can take something that might be successful somewhere else? What are the design elements we need to ensure are in place in Dallas to have success and to change public safety for our kids?
When I talked to René right after the announcement, that’s one of the things he said, that a big piece of this is going to be getting out into communities and holding these forums to talk to folks all over Dallas about their experiences. Do you have a sense of what this is going to look like on a day to day or week to week basis?
No. We don’t even know the full make-up of the task force. The things we do know is that we’re going to try to get up every day, we’re going to try to figure out what are the blind spots that we have, and then we’re going to try to identify people, data, and information that can help us get to some tangible recommendations.
Have you learned of any additional task force members other than the three co-chairs?
No, not yet. We’re still figuring that process out.
Did you have a relationship with the mayor prior to being asked onto the task force?
I had worked with Mayor Johnson when he was a state rep. on high-quality Pre-K.
When were you contacted about the task force?
I was first asked about the task force on Friday of last week. The idea of being co-chair came over the weekend.
Some of the Council members were critical of not being let in on the process, and the mayor also says he didn’t have contact with police about this. I know this came together quickly.
I don’t really know about some of that. What I know is that my job is to wake up every day and put this task force in the best position possible to get to some tangible solutions that can be helpful. In our work at CPAL, I have a lot of contact with members of the police department and have great relationships with folks in DPD, and what I have heard is not that there shouldn’t be any communication. Clearly, we’re going to need to make sure that we can get fact-based data insights from a wide array of stakeholders, the widest array possible. What I have heard is that what we’re looking for is non-policing solutions that can be contributors, and I think there’s a distinction there.
Do you have an idea of the kind of solutions you might see at the end of this?
I think that would be a little premature. Here’s generally what I believe: I’m going to walk in with some ideas. I would expect everyone on the task force would walk in with some ideas. And one of the principals that I’ve really come to believe in is that it’s better to be right at the end of the meeting than it is at the beginning of the meeting, so that’s the approach we’re going to try to take.
Is it a 90-day timeframe?
No exact timeframe has been set. What I have heard, and heard at the press conference, was that the mayor would like to have some tangible recommendations by the end of the year.
I wanted to ask you about how much you’ve witnessed the personal impact of this violence, whether that’s this year or past years. Have you talked to folks who’ve been personally impacted or had those conversations?
There was a piece that your organization published yesterday by Will Maddox. When I first received a phone call from Mayor Johnson I had just read Will, he had posted that in an article forum online. (Editor’s note: before Will expanded his thoughts for us, he posted about the shooting on Twitter and Facebook). I’d encourage folks to read that, because it highlights the deep, deep complexities of this issue. I spend my life, for the last better part of a decade, focused on issues that have to do with how we promote opportunity for children. It is emotionally difficult to see headlines in the morning and read stories about kids losing the chance for any opportunity because they’ve lost their lives. I hope for anyone in Dallas, if you have the chance to be part of a solution, even in the smallest way, I hope you take that.
What else haven’t I asked you about that you’d like to speak to?
We’d invite everyone to be a part of this process. We’re going to really try to stay focused on solutions here. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to help on an issue that I care a lot about.