Regardless of which groups the prosecutor’s office partners with, it helps to have tools for identifying local priorities and concerns. The Denver District Attorney’s Office Community Justice Unit has developed just such a tool, which it calls the “dots exercise.”
This is how the dots exercise works: Before a meeting, the community prosecution staff meets individually with dozens of people who live and work in the neighborhood and asks them to talk about local concerns. Based on information gathered through these individual conversations, the community prosecutor creates large posters listing all the issues raised by the community members. Room is left on the charts so that additional issues can be added during the meeting.
After a brief introduction to the exercise, participants review the problems listed on the charts and discuss possible additions. Everyone at the meeting then receives an unlimited number of green dots and two red dots. Council members place a green dot next to any issue they feel is a neighborhood problem. They then place their two red dots next to the issues they feel are the most important. Participants are allowed to place both their red dots on a single issue.
The number of red dots next to each issue gives the group a concrete measure of which issues are of greatest collective concern. The green dots help ensure that issues of lower priority are also noted and not pushed aside entirely. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the community justice council used the dots exercise to identify drug sales and crimes connected to alcohol abuse as the top crime issues. The dots exercise isn’t simply about tallying up the numbers and then focusing on the top concerns, cautions Tom Knorr, a member of the Capitol Hill Community Justice Council. “Counting red dots and green dots is, in a sense, looking for a majority, but you’re also looking for what we can all live with. You don’t just say, ‘These are the winners; too bad losers.’ You have to fashion it in a way that respects everyone,” he says.
“You want to have discussions about how to prioritize. ‘This got the most red dots, how do you feel about that?’ I think when neighbors can hear neighbors talking about a particular issue, you try to have that discussion help people see that this is the place to focus first. It isn’t like there’s an announcement that one issue is the winner.”