Dec 12, 2013
Posted on Nov 25, 2011
Visiting Watts had a visceral effect on Kennedy. He threw himself into researching drug markets, but within 10 years he needed to do more than study the problems. Although his knowledge of academic criminology is formidable, he met his most important teachers in the field: cops who took him on patrol rides; Paul Joyce, head of Boston’s Youth Violence Strike Force that developed the Wendover Street operation, a model for Operation Ceasefire; gang outreach groups like Boston’s Streetworkers; gang members who told Kennedy of the fear that drove them to carry guns; local women who wept as they remembered children, grandchildren, brothers and cousins killed in gang warfare, yet recounted the terror of police raids and their hatred of police who harassed the young men through the “zero tolerance” and “stop and frisk” tactics that have inflamed targeted neighborhoods.
The book opens with Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old, unarmed black father in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, shot to death in April 2001 as he ran from police. Why did he run? Because he had 14 outstanding warrants, mainly for minor traffic offenses. In Cincinnati’s most dangerous district, hours of policing went into ticketing traffic violations. Thomas was the 15th young black male killed by Cincinnati cops or dying in their custody since 1995. His death sparked four days of rioting.
Both my gang-member students at the prison and the many women I’ve talked with in the distressed city of Camden, N.J., who invariably detest the police, have taught me much about the moral corrosiveness of guns, substance abuse, poverty and crime. A central theme of “Don’t Shoot,” however, is that we cannot end the violence and mass incarceration plaguing our inner cities unless we bridge the chasms of misunderstanding and suspicion that separate law-abiding inhabitants, the police and gangs. All three “communities,” as Kennedy insists, include rational, fundamentally decent people. Sometimes they behave in destructive ways, but most would act differently if another path were made clear to them through the chaos.
Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America
By David M. Kennedy
Bloomsbury USA, 320 pages
In 1994, Kennedy and his collaborator, Anne Piehl, set out to find such a path. Armed with a grant from the National Institute of Justice, they contacted the Boston police commissioner, who put them in touch with Joyce to discuss applying problem-oriented policing to gun homicides among Boston’s youth. In problem-oriented policing, specific types of crime are studied to devise new strategies for preventing them. Public and private partners help implement the strategies, results are evaluated and adjustments are made for the next time around.
The “Working Group” of the Boston Gun Project began meeting in early 1995. While Boston had lower rates of gun violence than New York and other large cities, a surge in homicides in the poor black districts of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan had overwhelmed police. Homicide among men below age 24 soared from 22 to 73 victims between 1987 and 1990 and averaged 44 victims yearly between 1991 and 1995. Gang members were not the only casualties; innocents like 12-year-old Tiffany Moore also died. The Working Group sought a “near-term” solution to this crisis. Analysis revealed, contrary to expectations, that a small number of gang members in a few “hot spots” were responsible for a disproportionate number of homicides. Recognizing that Boston police lacked the capacity to stop all gang crime, Kennedy’s team developed a “retail deterrence” strategy. One of the worst offenders was arrested and given a 19-year sentence in a distant federal prison. Meetings were then convened with police, youth workers, probation and parole officers, and community leaders who told invited gang members what had happened. The young men attending the “call-ins” were promised jobs, housing and protection, all on one condition: The shooting had to stop. The first one to violate the cease-fire would cause all “levers” to be pulled. The entire gang would be punished; penalties would be swift, severe and 100 percent certain.
The result has been called the Boston Miracle. Follow-up studies correlated Operation Ceasefire with a 63 percent decline in youth homicide. The program quickly gained national attention and went on the road, first to Minneapolis and then Stockton, Calif. Over the next 15 years, the Working Group and its national partners refined their strategies and extended them to other problems—sexual assaults in Memphis, Tenn.; open-air drug markets in High Point, N.C.; and other cities. Much data shows that the interventions have been very effective, though they are not the only policies to have made a difference. Although whites in the U.S. outnumber blacks, as Kennedy stresses, the latter are still much more likely to be killed: In 2005, more than 2,200 black men aged 18 to 24 were homicide victims, compared with 1,400 whites. The rate again seems to be rising; in New York City, white homicides decreased 27 percent in 2010 but increased 31 percent among black men. In light of these grim statistics, Kennedy is abruptly dismissive of scholars, politicians and police who have questioned his assessment of the problems or the benefits of Ceasefire. Yet he gives too short shrift to the decline of gun violence during the 1990s in cities that tried other responses. The significant decrease in New York City between 1995 and 2001 has been credited to its enlarged police force and zero-tolerance tactics, though with terrible damage to civil liberties and relations between police and minority communities. Some studies suggest that Boston homicides possibly began to subside before Ceasefire was under way. There too other interventions and factors may have contributed.
The my-way-or-the-highway tenor of parts of “Don’t Shoot” goes hand-in-hand with the misleading “one man” of its subtitle. As becomes clear from Kennedy’s own narrative, Ceasefire depended on the painstaking development of partnerships between multiple individuals and agencies. It cannot be replicated everywhere partly for this reason; even in Boston, the interagency collaboration of the 1990s fell apart in 2000.
Although Kennedy is highly critical of challengers, he does not stint in praising his many associates around the country who have shared his passion and struggled alongside him to develop strategies, if only for a time. The good they achieved was not a miracle, he notes, but the result of long hours of grinding work—another reason the Ceasefire approach has sometimes proven hard to disseminate. People like Kennedy, obsessed with a vision of how to diminish suffering in this world and driven to act on their vision, are not always pleasant. They don’t have to be. What we need is for them to light a fire under the rest of us so that we also get to work, perhaps finding ways to reduce the violence in cities where Ceasefire was not successfully implemented. “Don’t Shoot” may be the spark.
Celia Chazelle is chair of the history department at The College of New Jersey and co-founder of its Center for Prison Outreach and Education.
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