When asked to coordinate a survey of the Red Hook community in Brooklyn, New York, the initial reaction was, Why? The planning team had already conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with community residents and leaders; it seemed that little could be gained by the labor-intensive task of distributing and analyzing hundreds of questionnaires. But now, after organizing an annual survey in Red Hook for the past 4 years, the value (and the challenges) of a community survey are apparent.
Although a survey does not replace the knowledge gained through focus groups and individual interviews, it does deepen a planners understanding. Adam Mansky, coordinator of the Red Hook Community Justice Center (Justice Center), explained, Surveys underscore certain ideas that planners might have, letting them know what the community does or doesnt want. Its another way to ensure that your project is responding to real community needs.
John Perry, the director of planning for the Vermont Department of Corrections (which conducted a statewide survey about its department), finds that surveys offer the same benefits to community justice planners as to businesses researching a products appeal: We just did what businesses do all the time. Its called market research. Its what any successful company in America does.
A survey can enhance a planners work in a number of key areas.
When a project is in the initial planning phase, the most important function of a survey is to give a program its fundamental shape. Questions are addressed to set parameters, such as:
Greater emphasis on offenders paying the community back?
More services to help offenders find legitimate work?
A survey sends a clear message to community stakeholders that their opinions matter. This is especially important in neighborhoods that are wary of government intervention and suspicious of outsiders. By conducting a survey, planners show that their project will be different: it will not be an unwanted government program. Rather, the project will be tailored to the communitys needs and concerns. The annual survey used by the Justice Center is designed to last 20 minutes, but it can take longer. This design shows the community that you are interested in their concerns by taking time to listen. James Brodick, the director of community programs at the Justice Center, relates his experience: I think it shows that when you reach out, people are willing to talk with you. We might spend an hour chatting with elderly residents. They cant believe that we are interested in hearing what they have to say.
A survey offers an opportunity to educate a community about a new project. Every time a surveyor makes a connection with a citizen, it creates an opportunity for dialog and a chance to shape public opinion about the project. If surveyors are properly equipped with information about the initiative, they can and should answer citizens questions. In Red Hook, for example, surveyors tell the people they are interviewing about the Justice Center and invite them to visit. Kechea Brown, a surveyor, recounted one such experience: A woman stopped to do the survey but wasnt mentally there. I asked if she was okay and she started talking about how she was losing her apartment, having problems with welfare, etc. I told her that I knew a place where you can get help: the Justice Center. I gave her the bus route, telephone number, and names of people to talk to. She got on the bus straight to the Justice Center.
Partnerships are a key component of any community justice project. Survey results can help identify potential partners and convince them that their cooperation is needed. If the community identifies a need such as job training, affordable housing, or drug treatment, planners can begin to forge relationships with the appropriate agencies. To deal with crime in a housing project, it may make sense to partner with the local housing agency or community development organization. To respond to drug abuse, a drug treatment provider is a logical partner. In West Palm Beach, Florida, for instance, community court planners surveyed residents approximately 6 months before the court opened. Tom Becht, coordinator of the court, said that the survey showed that trash and litter were by far the top concerns. Realizing this was a community priority, the courts community service crews focused on cleaning up the neighborhood. Planners also used the survey data to convince the city to get involved. The city now is adopting a plan where theyre going to clean up property and bill the landlords after giving them a notice that they need to clean up the property themselves, Becht said.
Any project, especially one that is new or experimental, needs to be evaluated. Questions to consider include the following:
A survey can help answer these questions, especially if it is readministered on a regular basis as are the Red Hook and West Palm Beach surveys. In addition, a survey can reveal if the public is aware that the community justice program exists and give a sense of what they think about the program. For example, a year after the community court in Minneapolis opened, a telephone survey was conducted to measure community awareness and satisfaction levels with the court. Court officials learned that only 20 percent of residents in the catchment area had heard of the Hennepin County Community Court, which suggested that more could be done to educate citizens about the courts existence and its role in the neighborhood. However, officials were encouraged to learn that a large majority of residents supported the courts key features, such as having offenders perform community service and linking offenders with court-monitored drug treatment.
Although a survey can offer a sense of whether progress has been made in public opinion, the results may not stand up to scrutiny from academic researchers. A survey designed to cultivate community support for a project cannot vigorously measure public opinion. In other words, a surveyor cannot say, This is a great project, and then ask community members for their opinion of the project without potentially biasing the results. Even with this caveat, however, it still makes sense to track community attitudes. Survey results will help with program design and help planners gauge their progress.
Funders like to support projects that meet a communitys needs. A survey can help persuade a potential funder that the need for a new program is genuine. Survey results can also help show that the community supports a project and that a project has had a tangible effect on residents attitudes about crime, safety, and the neighborhood in general.