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Community Surveys

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.

Community surveys can give planners a detailed picture of a community’s priorities, expectations, and self-image. A survey—whether conducted by phone, on the street, or from door to door—gathers information from hundreds and potentially thousands of stakeholders. Surveys also sort data in a form that is perfect for analysis. Rather than gathering anecdotal impressions during a focus group, a well-designed survey crystallizes information into quantifiable data. For instance, a statewide survey in Vermont found that only 37 percent of residents had a favorable impression of the state’s Department of Corrections, but 93 percent would support the creation of reparative boards (panels of citizens who oversee probation terms for nonviolent offenders). The results of this survey gave planners valuable information that helped them make the case to funders and elected officials that reparative boards were worth trying.

—Robert Victor Wolf

Although a survey does not replace the knowledge gained through focus groups and individual interviews, it does deepen a planner’s 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 doesn’t want. It’s 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 product’s appeal: “We just did what businesses do all the time. It’s called market research. It’s what any successful company in America does.”

A survey can enhance a planner’s work in a number of key areas.

Needs Assessment

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:

  • What problems should a program focus on?


  • What kinds of solutions are most desirable?

    • —Targeted law enforcement?
      —Greater emphasis on offenders paying the community back?
      —More services to help offenders find legitimate work?

  • What community resources are available to support the program?

    —Church groups?
    —Civic organizations?
    —Ad hoc volunteers?
With answers to these questions, planners can build a program that best meets the community’s needs. Also the survey elicits feedback from everyone—not just a handful of the neighborhood’s most vocal citizens. According to Mansky, “There are about 15 or 20 leaders at every community meeting, but how do you reach beyond them to the average person on the street? A survey is the perfect tool for this. It offers some reassurance that community leaders are accurately representing the needs and interests of their constituents.”

Community Support

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 community’s 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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 court’s 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 they’re 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:

  • Is the project achieving its goals?

  • Are things working as intended, or have unanticipated obstacles required a change in strategy?

  • Is the public satisfied with the results so far?

  • How have the public’s attitudes changed over time?

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 court’s existence and its role in the neighborhood. However, officials were encouraged to learn that a large majority of residents supported the court’s 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 community’s 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.

Surveying Communities: A Resource for Community Justice Planners
May 2003