National Edition

Ceasefire: Can straight talk and clear consequences stop crime cold?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Officer Rebecca Calogero of the High Point, N.C., Police Department talks with James E. Lloyd at the corner of English Road and Kennedy Avenue, which used to be ground zero for the local drug market in High Point's West End area.

High Point Police Department

On one corner is an abandoned lot, a checkerboard of fresh grass and broken concrete. Across the street is an old, white brick church, now a community center and home to a Christian outreach center. Dilapidated or abandoned buildings lie in all directions, punctuated with two barbershops, a sandwich shop and a used furniture store.

The corner is 12th and Chicon in Austin, Texas, for decades host to a notorious drug market, plagued with dealers and addicts, property crime and prostitution, used needles and empty bottles.

Some resigned, others angry, the impoverished community had lost hope of reclaiming the corner. Police did little but periodic crackdowns, shuffling a few individuals through the revolving doors of justice. But the drug market was never dented.

Until this year.

For the past six months, the intersection has been quiet, the streets clean, the neighborhood recovering its balance, and Commander Fred Fletcher of the Austin Police Department thinks it will stay that way.

“There is literally grass growing in the vacant lot that the drug dealers used to beat down to the dirt,” Fletcher says. “It used to have hard-packed dirt that looked like asphalt.

“Once I stood there for an hour and stopped counting at 35 Toyota Priuses,” Fletcher said. “It’s an unusual metric, but people who drive Priuses don’t tend to hang out where there is a lot of violent crime or drug dealing.”

The transformation at 12th and Chicon stems from a single “call in” meeting this spring, when local police, federal officials and community leaders confronted drug dealers in the white brick church across from the vacant lot. No one was arrested, but damning evidence was shared, warnings were issued and help was offered.

The meeting launched a “drug market intervention,” as pioneered by David Kennedy, a maverick criminologist at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City, an increasingly prominent national voice in crime control based at one of the most prominent institutions in criminal justice innovation.

In the right place and implemented the right way, Kennedy believes, his ideas can stop gang shootings and drug markets cold, allow community leaders to bring moral force to bear and help impoverished neighborhoods come alive.

Since 1995, the model, referred to as “pulling levers,” or, more wonkily, “focused deterrence,” has been tested from Long Island to New Orleans and from Boston to Los Angeles. Ongoing research suggests the impact is real and can be lasting if handled right. Originally developed for gang violence and open drug markets, Kennedy’s concepts are even being tested on domestic violence in North Carolina.

In an meta-analysis of “pulling levers” projects conducted by Anthony Braga at Harvard and David Weisburd at George Mason University, nine of 10 showed highly significant crime reductions. And, Kennedy says, the one outlier project did not adhere to the model’s core requirements.

As more cities test the model and more studies evaluate results, the implications for crime-ridden poor neighborhoods around the country are significant.

Many repeat offenders, Kennedy argues, are simply responding rationally to a whimsical and irrational system. “It turns out,” Kennedy said, “when you say to them, ‘we’ve got this case, the next time we come to the corner and see you, you are going to jail, this is now 100 percent certain, and we are putting you on prior notice’ — they stop.”

Seeds of an idea

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