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A Guide For City-Led Response

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Chapter 2: Community Engagement

Community engagement is key to a participatory approach to local governance, which is increasingly recognised as good practice at all levels of government. Most local authorities already engage in their communities in a variety of ways and recognise its importance. High levels of trust create a foundation for meaningful response. For example, an incident review of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 (Florida, United States) highlighted how “pre-existing Orlando police-community relationships, fostered and sustained over time, enhanced the resilience of the community in the aftermath of the Pulse terrorist shooting”. Additionally, during a Strong Cities workshop on response in Helsinki (Finland), law enforcement officials emphasised how prevention-oriented community engagement efforts had helped with post-incident response, as members of the public were already familiar with reporting processes and trusted that their local law enforcement would respond appropriately. 

There are numerous city examples of how pre-existing relationships among city leaders, frontline personnel and communities have enabled a city to mobilise swiftly in response to an incident. For example, in Boston (Massachusetts, United States), years of developing and exercising planning for the annual marathon and other events proved vital in the wake of the 2013 bombing, as it enabled the mayor and city government to swiftly mobilise a command centre through which the response was coordinated. In Helsinki (Finland), the 23 local government and civil society stakeholders that comprise its Safe City Network meet regularly to proactively discuss community tensions, challenges and needs for responding to emerging threats. The network can be mobilised swiftly to respond if and when required. 

Mayors and cities also need to be aware of the acutely sensitive and emotionally charged context in which they will be operating during times of crisis, noting that situations can escalate rapidly, particularly where there is perceived injustice or a desire for retaliation. 

This chapter provides guidance on how to use long-term community engagement strategies and partnerships following an attack or other crisis. A long-term strategy for building trust, which often is the result of long-term investments in relationships with different communities, is essential to ensure that relationships are in place and can be leveraged effectively in times of crisis. Conversely, engaging communities as a ‘one-off’ following an attack can leave them feeling instrumentalised or stigmatised and/or reinforce negative perceptions. 

Through long-term engagement, local authorities will be able to:

  • Disseminate information and guidance in a tailored and effective way.
  • Identify community needs, existing resources and the support available (e.g., volunteer networks and informal information-sharing mechanisms).
  • Identify appropriate survivor support mechanisms.

Situation Analysis 

Identifying Vulnerable Communities

The first step after an attack or during a crisis is to determine the needs and priorities of those impacted. As part of this effort, local authorities should identify communities that might be especially vulnerable and therefore need dedicated and tailored support.

Relevant CommunitiesExamples
Targeted Communities The 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue attack led
to concerns about the general safety of Jewish communities. The city, therefore, engaged with these communities to identify means of support, for example, by providing additional security for places of worship on Jewish holidays.
Communities perceived to be related to the perpetrator(s) or origins of a threat. 
Being linked to the perpetrator(s) in any way may lead to blame, revenge attacks and self-stigmatisation.
There is increasing evidence that terrorist attacks and periods of heightened tension can cause spikes in hate crimes and lead to ethnic tensions, indicating growing intolerance against individuals or communities perceived to be linked to the events. Aside from the direct harm caused by this reciprocal violence, it can have long-term effects on community cohesion. 

Since 2015, successive waves of terrorist attacks in France have triggered a surge of Islamophobia across the country and an increase in hate crimes targeting the Muslim community, especially in the direct aftermath of terrorist attacks. Fifty-four anti-Muslim incidents were registered in the week following the Charlie Hebdo attack

A Fondation Jean Jaurès study conducted in 2019 revealed that 42% of French Muslims felt they experienced discrimination based on their faith, with the number rising to 60% for Muslim women wearing a headscarf. Following a spate of attacks in October 2020, concerns emerged relating to the government’s proposal for a “bill on Republican principles” (former “bill against separatism”), aimed at cracking down on Islamist extremism. This bill was seen by many as potentially stigmatising for Muslim communities. 

Adopted amendments included introducing restrictions on Muslim religious practice, including banning headscarves for girls under 18 in public spaces, or preventing mothers who wear a headscarf from taking part in school trips, raising concerns about the risk of institutional Islamophobia. 

Other areas have also reported an increase in attacks. London Mayor Sadiq Khan similarly reported a five-fold increase in Islamophobic incidents reported to the Met Police following the 2019 London attack, with similar spikes following other incidents around the world. 
Communities affected collaterally, whether physically and/or psychologically (e.g., their assets were destroyed, a similar event happened before with a different target).These communities could be individuals whose personal assets or homes are destroyed, and who will need both temporary shelter and post-traumatic care. Attacks and crises may also have indirect victims. For example, social media coverage of such events can be overwhelming for a person’s nervous system and create traumatic stress just as if they had experienced the event first-hand.
Communities that are at risk of (further) radicalisation, either because they follow the ideology of the perpetrator(s), or they stand at the receiving end of the attack. In either case, they might feel that the use of violence becomes legitimised.A spectrum of extremist and terrorist networks capitalised on the Christchurch attack in 2019. For example, following the attack, ISIS made an official statement calling for revenge by the Muslim community. At the same time, the Facebook livestream recorded by the shooter and his manifesto (and/or excerpts thereof) were circulated via the internet/social media (e.g., 8Chan, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), several British tabloids (e.g., The Sun, The Mirror, MailOnline) and cable news (e.g., Sky Australia, Sky New Zealand), which served to further radicalise individuals in the online space, and inspired further plots/acts of racist violence and terrorism, including inter alia in U.S. cities, such as Buffalo (New York), San Diego (California) and El Paso (Texas), Baerum in Norway, Halle in Germany, Singapore, and Stanwell in the United Kingdom. 

Identifying Entry Points

Local authorities should adopt a mixed approach, in which they conduct direct community engagement, and work through community-based partners who already have trust and credibility on the ground and can serve as entry points. This can include CSOs, local media outlets, private companies and community leaders. 

They can help ensure messages are conveyed appropriately through relevant channels to key groups, provide a ‘temperature check’ on how certain communities are responding to an attack, and serve as critical service providers in the short- and long-term. Local authorities should assess the advantages, opportunities, risks and challenges of direct versus indirect engagement, which may vary depending on the target audience, to decide where to place emphasis.

Responding to Anti-Asian Hate in New York City during COVID-19

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported crimes targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150% in major US cities. New York responded to this surge with targeted public awareness campaigns, such as “I Still Believe in Our City”, by artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, developed with the NYC Commission on Human Rights and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. Others included a Stop Anti-Asian Hate Education Resource Guide, a joint effort of the NYC Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and the Department of Education, with comics, podcasts, spoken word poems and videos content.

Direct Engagement Assign an internal case manager who is perceived as a trusted point of contact within the relevant community. This could be a community engagement officer, a social worker, a local or community police officer.In addition to the usual qualities required to engage with communities (being empathetic, practical, trustworthy, non-judgmental), the individual should have a thorough understanding of the community dynamics and structures and be as open-minded as possible. Providing resources and training on unconscious bias, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and conflict resolution can be important to address this in a structured manner.
Indirect EngagementCommunity actors can have various backgrounds, for example, community organisers, local council members and other government leaders, non-profit or business leaders, volunteer or faith leaders, and long-term residents. Some of these actors can engage with and influence multiple spaces, including domestic, professional, social and cultural. These actors can provide an informed frontline understanding of their communities and help identify existing structures and relationships, including:

• Activities in which the community is already interested and involved and where community engagement might be integrated.
• Social, economic and political structures that can be used for community engagement.
• Changing needs and concerns.


Post-incident outreach requires careful planning to ensure that the purpose and goals of the outreach are clear, that methods employed are tailored to both the community and context, and that the engagement does not add to the trauma experienced. Messaging must be widely accessible, including for traditionally hard to reach communities and those for whom the recent events may have undermined trust and/or heightened fear.

Engagement should thus be planned carefully, and in consultation with trusted community leaders, to ensure that the structure of the engagement and the messaging is thoughtful and constructive and that methods employed build trust and promote dialogue. Establishing a working group with community leaders can help mitigate any unintended consequences and guide the city on tailoring messaging, methods and channels.


Key PrinciplesBuilding trust and dialogue through transparent communications and detailed planning
Communicating ObjectivesExplain the purpose of your engagement

For example:

• Gauging the impact of this incident on different sub-communities.
• Identifying short-, medium- and long-term community needs. 
• Assessing community skills and expertise, and people’s appetite to support wider post-incident response.
• Developing a recovery plan based on community needs and priorities.
• Disseminating information and soliciting ongoing feedback on the response.

Outline a clear plan

How do you intend to sustain engagement and how contributions of community members will be used? This should include addressing potential data privacy issues and anonymity guarantees if community members speak to you in confidence about their concerns, things they have seen online and/or worrying trends.
MethodsGo to the Communities

Knock on residents’ doors and/or identify where people congregate. The case manager should be accompanied by a trusted and credible community interlocutor.

Organise Public Meetings and Open Houses

Enable the public to lead in identifying priorities, organising support, implementing programmes and evaluating outcomes. Empower them to draw on their full potential in developing collective actions and solutions. The local authority should act as a coordinator, rather than issuing instructions.

Provide a space for people to meet and connect, but also to raise legitimate concerns so that any challenges and disagreements can be addressed. This builds a culture of shared responsibility and openness, rather than shaming people for being afraid, angry, etc. It is vital that such sessions are facilitated by someone with a background in mediation or high-stakes situations, as emotions may run high and require a confident, calm ‘referee’.

Establish a working group representative of different community actors who can convene as needed to share updates, troubleshoot issues and adjust the strategy or next steps accordingly. Ensure this group represents the diversity of your local population, across various common divides (e.g., gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, political affiliation).

Media. Online channels can remove barriers for outreach (e.g., travel costs, audience size) and allow for a continuous flow of information, networking and consultation (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp). That said, many segments of the population may not be active or comfortable with social media (e.g., older residents), or have limited access to the internet and therefore prefer more traditional media like radio, local news or print. For the latter, the city may be able to negotiate in-kind support through regular segments, column inches, etc. It is best to use a variety of channels to reach the widest possible audience – do not assume a Facebook post will have universal reach. 

Multilingual and Accessible. All outreach efforts should be multilingual and accessible, reflective of all languages and guided by the city’s communities. If language support is required, cities could consider partnering with local universities/ colleges or CSOs with language capabilities to provide continual/ rapid response translation and interpretation. For example, a 2010 – 2021 project led by the University of Manchester (United Kingdom) brought together undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and high-impact research with public engagement and outreach, focused on support for Multilingual Manchester

Surveys. A quick and easy way to gather information, especially when conducted online. However, be sure to consider relevant privacy legislation and regulations, and ‘clean’ the data and check for anything that looks suspicious or anomalous.

Engaging Norway’s Interfaith Communities in Response 

Norway’s National Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities (or Samarbeidsrådet for tros-og livssynssamfunn, STL) brings together more than 40 religious communities to foster interfaith dialogue, understanding and trust. Following the 2022 LGBTQ+-targeted shooting in Oslo, the Council mobilised religious leaders of all faiths to support Oslo’s LGBTQ+ community and to show solidarity against the attack. The interfaith community also played a role in addressing conspiracies and bigotry that followed the attack, hosting seminars that emphasised the city’s principles of openness and inclusion. 

The importance of collaboration between interfaith communities – particularly religious minorities – and law enforcement should not be underestimated. Oslo’s Sondre Norstrand Muslim Center has a designated contact person at the police department and meets regularly to discuss concerns, whether that be emerging tensions that need to be addressed or ways to make Oslo’s Muslim community feel safe and protected against bigotry; building relationships and trust that are also pivotal in a post-attack environment.

Language Access Plan

Aurora (Colorado) is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. One in every five residents was born outside of the country, hailing from 140 different nations. Children in the community speak more than 150 different languages in public schools. Providing meaningful access to services for residents with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) is a strategic goal for Aurora, as articulated in the City’s 2020 – 2030 Immigrant Integration Plan: “Ensure city services are accessible to speakers of other languages: The city will continue to develop and implement its Language Access Plan, so that city staff can interact with and deliver city services to all residents of Aurora, no matter what language they speak.” 

Aurora’s Language Access Plan offers specific language services (such as document translation and interpretation during city government meetings) in the city’s top 10 designated languages and the Voiance International Line offers interpretation in 150 languages to support one-on-one interactions.

Muslim Youth Protect Churches in Jordan 

In April 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for Palm Sunday attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, which killed 44 and injured more than 100 worshippers, including children. With the group making repeated threats to Jordanian security, young Muslims in Jordan took the initiative to guard churches across the country, including in Aljoun, Madaba and Zarqa during Easter celebrations “to ensure the safety of Christians inside”. 

Empowering Community-Based Organisations in Response 

The New York City Mayor’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes (OPHC) has underscored the importance of addressing, preventing and responding to hate violence. OPHC organises and participates in town hall meetings, sponsors programs for youth, and provides educational resources. Among OPHC’s key initiatives is a Community Advisory and Services Team (CAST), a partnership with New York City community-based organisations that supports and elevates their important grassroots work to serve the communities that are the most vulnerable to bias-motivated incidents and hate crimes so that the city is better positioned to improve services to respond to the needs of the diverse communities and ensure a safer, welcoming New York City for all. 

OPHC also runs a number of community-based grant programmes, including Community Project Grants, a joint initiative of OPHC and the NYC Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). Community Project Grants to encourages individuals, groups, non-profit organisations, academic institutions, and other entities located in New York City to implement creative projects that promote community respect, prevent hate violence, and seek to address hate crimes, bias-motivated incidents, and discrimination through pathways outside of law enforcement and the criminal legal system. Applicants can propose projects including, but not limited to, community workshops, educational videos, events, conferences and social media campaigns.

Preventing Retaliation 

Following the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, several attacks were targeted at Muslim-owned businesses and houses, and there were calls to boycott Muslim-owned shops. This example shows how quickly communities perceived to be associated with the perpetrator(s) can become demonised, and the need for local authorities to engage actively with all communities to avoid further escalation and damage to a city’s social fabric.

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