TRENTON – Amid concerns about rising violence, especially among people with guns, a new report is suggesting the state emphasize community alternatives rather than increased policing to stem the tide.

Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said community-led programs can do a more effective job of reducing crime and improving safety, health and educational attainment. She said she doesn’t expect the police to fight the idea if the Legislature takes it up.

“We’re talking about investing in models that serve communities that are in crisis. We’re not talking about doing anything to police or taking anything from police,” Ubel said.

Rev. Charles Boyer, the founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, said the current approach to public safety doesn’t make sense – provide people no supports, then send in armed police who’d rather not be confronting substance use and mental health problems.

“That’s just not what they signed up for, and it’s definitely not what they’re equipped for,” Boyer said.

A campaign pushing for a switch to nonpolice responses to nonviolent situations involving mental health and substance use launches Monday with a conference at an Elizabeth church.

The NJPP report found that Elizabeth spends more than five times more on its police budget than its health and human services department. In Gloucester County, police got two and a half times the spending on health and human services programs.

“The way we are doing things is not making us a safer society,” Boyer said. “It just exacerbates the issues.”

The Newark Community Street Team does that type of alternative response in the state’s largest city, aiming to connect residents with substance abuse and mental health help they generally don’t even know is available to them.

“When we are able to service victims on the front end, we prevent them from becoming perpetrators on the back end – and that’s victims of crimes and victims of systems,” said Solomon Middleton-Williams, the NCST’s deputy director.

Ubel said there’s money available through the federal American Rescue Plan for these types of community-led responses.

“And in the long-term, programs like this have actually been shown to save communities money,” she said.

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Boyer said the state and towns spend the money already – but on policing, rather than programs that could steer people from substance abuse and mental health issues.

“New Jersey can do better. New Jersey must do better,” Boyer said. “Let’s put people first, and let’s not put profits and police budgets before people.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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