Happy 15th Anniversary, DSAL!
DSAL is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, and we wanted to mark the occasion by sitting down (virtually) with DSAL’s founder, Captain Marty Neideffer, and DSAL’s first employee, Hilary Bass, to find out how they got started, what they learned along the way, and what their vision is for the future.
Neideffer, who was an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) Deputy, had the idea of creating a nonprofit Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League to provide safe, healthy activities for kids living in Ashland and Cherryland. Bass was the Resident Services Coordinator at Eden House apartments, run by Mercy Housing, and she was determined to create opportunities for the kids at the complex. Neideffer and Bass met at a meeting of Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley’s Violence Prevention Collaborative.
“Marty had started the nonprofit but didn't have any staff, and I had a bunch of kids and a willingness to work,” said Hilary Bass, Crime Prevention Sr. Program Specialist, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “I kind of became Marty's surrogate employee right away.”
“I understood that Hilary was trying to do what I was trying to do,” said Captain Marty Neideffer, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, “We connected around getting programs started, and it took off from there. The partnership worked well from the very beginning because of our common goals.”
The partnership also worked because of their shared belief that positive activities for youth and families combined with investments in local institutions would create stronger social connections resulting in a safer community with fewer incidents of crime.
“I learned very early in the course of my career that the police by themselves don't keep you safe,” said Neideffer. “They often respond after things happen. We’re not necessarily set up to be an upstream force for public safety.”
“Our approach, which eventually became known as Community Capitals Policing, creates new institutions and builds new connections, or pathways, throughout the community to create resiliency and address the underlying issues that drive crime,” he said.
“What we have attempted to do is to create interventions, strategies, and services to do that, and along the way, we’ve exposed ourselves to different ideas that reinforced what we already knew,” he said.
“My evolution is probably more dramatic than Marty's because I'm a civilian,” said Bass. “I came in without any personal experience with the police. Marty was the first cop I knew! My understanding of what's possible in public safety is because of working with Marty. I was lucky that I had this opportunity to reimagine public safety from the very beginning of my career.”
Today, DSAL and ACSO’s Youth and Family Services Bureau, which Neideffer leads, includes 70 people, spanning Crime Prevention Unit (CPU) Deputies, School Resource Officers, behavioral health case managers, recreation staff, urban farmers, and administrative personnel.
“That's significant in and of itself, to have 70 people influencing the direction of the agency,” said Neideffer. “People forget that it hasn’t always been this way.”
Exposing “hairline fractures” in the system
There are many ways to quantify DSAL’s impact—number of employees, new parks and fitness centers, improvements along East 14th Street, urban farms and a food hub, jobs that pay a living wage to people on probation, thousands of participants, and much, much more—but their new approach to policing meant that Neideffer and Bass often found themselves participating in conversations with new partners who weren’t used to looking at things through the lens of policing and public safety.
“I remember when we created Eden Night Live and all that represented in terms of how we were moving into economic development and creative placemaking, and how that process helped activate relationships between the deputies, the nonprofit staff, and the community," said Neideffer. "There was new energy that existed, and it felt like change was afoot.”
“There are the objective signals of impact and benefit, but I’ve been thinking about progress in terms of the friction we sometimes create with other agencies as a signal of our success. It shows a deeper understanding from our perspective of where safety gets impacted,” said Bass.
“The more we peel back the layers, the more we find ourselves in other peoples' offices,” she said. “We keep finding places where the systems have broken down. I call them hairline fractures because they’re invisible, but identifying them and repairing them is the only way to effectuate long-term, positive change.”
Despite their progress, Neideffer and Bass realize they are still at the early stages of their journey.
“I walked into my office this morning, logged on, and there was an email about Alameda County’s Good Food Purchasing Policy,” said Neideffer. “That’s remarkable because it means there may one day be a local group of people producing food that the county purchases from at a fair price that allows someone to make a living locally producing our food. We’ve been talking about that for 10 years!”
“I think we're about a quarter of the way through the journey,” he said. “We've demonstrated proof of concept. Now we have to come up with ideas and ways to scale Community Capitals Policing. That would be the vision going forward—to scale the model.”
“I agree,” said Bass. “I would love for more people to understand that what started 15 years ago was not happenstance; it was very much an intentional effort to create systemic change and make lasting improvements to public safety in the community.”
“I hope that someday, more people will see how creating a resilient local food system is part of public safety. How recreation is public safety. How public art is public safety,” said Neideffer. “I think whenever that occurs, we will know we will have achieved something permanent.”