What Is Public Safety?


The idea of public safety underlies numerous public policy decisions and laws, as well as many of the choices that each of us make in our everyday lives. But, what is it? What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “public safety”?  

Legal scholars define public safety as “the protection of the general public,” and they reference groups like police officers and firefighters as Public Safety Officers. Many governments form their policies on this idea of protecting people’s physical welfare. They often focus on combating crime in an effort to help community members feel secure, and they hire for roles like law enforcement officers and medical emergency responders. 

On the other hand, the psychologist Abraham Maslow used a much broader definition of safety in his famous “Hierarchy of Human Needs” model. He said that one of the most fundamental needs that we have is safety. This includes not only physical safety but also security of our health, money, belongings, jobs, and families.  

It might be easier to define public safety based on what happens when it’s missing. Imagine what your day, life, workplace, or community might look like without public safety. For instance, a lack of public safety might mean that the highway overpass near your house isn’t stable enough to drive on, the local park is overrun with used needles and other toxic garbage, or the water coming out of the faucet isn’t clean enough to drink.  

Beyond your day-to-day well-being, also think about the emotional toll that you might experience if you are afraid that you will be harmed physically, are concerned your child could catch a disease at school, or don’t know whether you’ll still have a job next week. In addition to immediate impacts, studies suggest that a lack of public safety might also have lingering effects on individuals, their loved ones, and the broader community.  

For example, emerging research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that victims of crimes might continue to suffer from a traumatizing event many years after the crime occurs. This lingering trauma and stress might affect the survivor’s health, job performance, personal relationships, and many other vital parts of life.  

Needless to say, “public safety” is a complex topic – one that city and community leaders across Austin are striving to address with the Reimagining Public Safety initiative. Some of the ways the City has begun to tackle this complicated topic are by working to address some of the root issues that can disrupt public safety, as well as looking at issues that currently strain public safety resources but could possibly be addressed in other ways. 

For example, in February 2021, Austin added a “mental health” option to the 9-1-1 triage script. When you call 9-1-1 in Austin, dispatchers will now ask if need Police, Fire, EMS, or Mental Health services. Callers that choose Mental Health services are then routed to a trained mental health responder. The goal of this program is to get Austinites the services they truly need in the moment and reduce the time that police spend on calls that don’t involve an immediate risk to the public or to the caller’s safety. 

Another example is the City’s recent initiative aimed at addressing chronic homelessness by providing permanent supportive housing. The goal of this program is to get some of Austin’s most vulnerable people off the streets, and in turn, help ease the burden on public safety resources that have previously had to step in to fill the gap. 

Of course, this is just the beginning of Austin’s public safety journey. Our leaders know they have a responsibility to address public safety, but they also understand that any topic this important takes the input of the entire community to get it right. So, what do you think? What makes you feel safe at home, in your community, and at work? What resources might help prevent circumstances that make you feel unsafe or to deal with these situations when they do happen?  

We want to hear from you! Check out the Reimagining Public Safety site to tell us what public safety means to you, share your input on the resources you need for your community, and get the latest updates on how Austin’s elected and community leaders  are working to create a better future for all of us.