By Jean Reynolds

In your police training you’ll often hear the term “public safety” used to refer to firefighters, EMTS, crime technicians, rescue squads, and—of course—police officers. Thinking about public safety is a useful way to broaden your outlook about crime because it places you and your agency in a larger context.

The term “public safety” represents a change in the way that criminal justice experts view law enforcement. In the past, the general belief was that crimes are committed by bad people. The solution to crime seemed simple: Ask the police to find the “bad people” and lock them up, preferably for long periods. Criminal behavior was believed to be caused by bad neighborhoods, declining church attendance, irresponsible parents, and character defects. Since police officers presumably had little influence over the causes of crime, they were expected to focus their attention on catching and prosecuting offenders.

But today’s crime experts take a broader view of the causes of crime. It’s true that many offenders have character defects and will probably never learn to respect the lives and property of others. But there’s another factor that must be present too: Opportunity. Experts are focusing more and more attention on what happens before a crime is committed. Police are learning how to employ tactics that frustrate lawbreakers—and the results have been impressive.

It’s easy to see why preventing crime is better than arresting a criminal after a crime has been committed. Blocking a criminal attempt doesn’t just save taxpayers the cost of an expensive prison sentence. A crime that doesn’t happen means that a citizen’s life isn’t disrupted by having to testify in court, file a claim with an insurance agent, seek treatment at an emergency room, or suffer the loss of a loved one. Citizens are able to go about their daily business unaware that a potentially hideous event never happened.

One essential key to crime prevention is partnerships—and this is where the umbrella term “public safety” becomes important. EMTs have prevented many homicides by employing “golden hour” practices that save lives that used to be lost. Research has shown that patients are more likely to survive critical injuries if important medical steps are taken within 60 minutes (the “golden hour”). Police officers can do their part by controlling traffic so that medical technicians can reach, treat, and transport patients swiftly.

Engineers and technicians can be also serve as important partners in preventing crime. Improved automobile technology has led to a dramatic decrease in car thefts, surveillance cameras are thwarting shoplifters and muggers, and traffic calming measures like speed humps and speed tables are prompting reckless motorists to drive more responsibly.

The essential component in all of this is an experienced police officer who can suggest ways to enhance public safety. Would trimming a hedge make an intersection less dangerous? Would brighter lights make a parking lot less attractive to drug dealers? What about getting to know the dealers who buy and sell scrap metal, guns, and jewelry—could they play a role in preventing thefts and break-ins?

How about setting up an education campaign to encourage young women out on the town to look out for one another? Calling a taxi for a woman who can’t get home on her own, making sure that unattended drinks aren’t tampered with, and spreading the word about a man with an unsavory reputation can keep a horrendous crime from happening.

As you go about your day-to-day duties as a police officer, make sure you broaden your focus to include crime prevention—and remember that partnering with other public-safety professionals is one of the best ways to keep a crime from happening.