National Edition

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

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

Gruff and direct, Kennedy speaks slowly and quietly but with force. His shoulder-length hair, scruffy beard and intense gaze make him a bit of a Rorschach test. Some see Willie Nelson or a hippy out of place and time. Others think he looks like Jesus.

Kennedy was part of a team from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that in 1995 was working the streets of Boston to find a way to stem a wave of gang shootings. A lifelong insomniac with a passionate commitment to social justice, Kennedy spent months lying awake wrestling with the intractable violence in Boston's urban battlefields.

One key insight came from a Boston anti-gun violence project called Project Scrap Iron, which attacked gang violence by prosecuting every possible offense, no matter how small, telling the warring youths the pressure would only lighten when the shootings stopped.

Another key innovation, also drawn from street knowledge of cops on the beat, was to focus on groups rather than individuals in attacking gang violence. “If one member of your gang breaks the truce,” they were told, “you are all going down hard on state and federal charges. Not just the shooter: all of you.”

Gradually, Kennedy distilled core principles from strategies police were already using, if only haphazardly. A theory formed. Tests followed.

Politics

Boston launched Operation Ceasefire in 1995 with Kennedy as a driving force. By 1999, the Baltimore Sun reported, the results were dramatic. “When the Ceasefire enforcement drive began, Boston had 96 homicides. A year later in 1996, the number declined to 59. Each year since has been marked by a further reduction: 43 in 1997, 35 last year.”

But then, amidst confused credit claiming and institutional politics, the wheels came off in Boston. In other cities as well, from Stockton to Chicago and Baltimore, promising results were undermined by infighting and politics, painfully described in Kennedy’s 2011 book, "Don’t Shoot." It proved difficult to get bureaucrats, politicians and police to all keep their eye on the same ball.

It took four years before Kennedy found a city that would fully embrace his approach. Finally, in 1999, High Point, N.C., flew Kennedy down, listened to his pitch and signed up.

Banking cases

Kennedy’s theory is simple. When he worked with police to analyze a playing field, they invariably found that small numbers of offenders commit most of the crimes, Kennedy said. And those few players are usually thickly involved on various criminal fronts.

The pulling levers model identifies a small number of high-volume offenders and works with prosecutors, federal officials and community leaders to build detailed criminal profiles. They look for any and all legal vulnerabilities — and then spell them out to the offender.

To stop gang shootings, they would say to gang members, “When we finish this conversation the first gang in town that kills somebody is going to get all of our intense attention, and it will not be pleasant and many of you will do time.” Gang members were also told that the police would take any truce violation as seriously as if an officer had been killed. With the drug market intervention, they actually prepare the case in advance. They build the case, but they don’t make the arrest. They call it “banking cases.”

Standard law enforcement is haphazard and uncertain. Offenders cycle, often without stopping in jail along the way. Police are frustrated, as is the community. Offenders are confused and cynical. And then, without warning, someone lowers the hammer with a lengthy federal charge, often 20 years or more.

In addition to offering clarity to the offender, focused deterrence allows law enforcement to offer an olive branch to neighborhoods torn between a desire for crime-free stability and the pain of seeing so many of its young men sent to prison.

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