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

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

There are other pieces to the puzzle. Community support proved critical, as did outreach and support for those who want to change. But the core of the approach remains the no-holds-barred prosecution threat, combined with clear communication.

It seems to work, as noted in the meta-study above. Anecdotally, as well, evidence continues to grow. Last year, when Chicago faced a homicide epidemic, Kennedy was just starting a gun violence project using his model in the hottest police district in the city, West Garfield Park. "While the city was up 40 percent,” Kennedy said, “the area where we were active was down 40 percent.”

High Point

But before there was Chicago or Austin, there was High Point. Home to just over 100,000 residents, the city’s violent crime index is historically much higher than the national average, and 15 years ago was quite close to that of neighboring Greensboro.

Already a forward-thinking department, High Point launched its Violent Crime Task Force in 1999, using Kennedy’s model to go after gun violence. It called in the most active gang members and told them that the very next time any member of their gang opened fire, the entire weight of state and federal power would come down on the entire group. It worked on the street, and this time it stuck in the department.

Then in 2003, as Kennedy looked for a test case to apply the same model to street-corner drug markets. High Point came through again. Again, the strategy was focused deterrence, banking cases, pulling levers.

They built cases against the key dealers and called them in. Your case is in this file, they said. Watch this video of your drug sale. We could arrest you right now, but we are not going to. If you make another peep, you're going down hard on state and federal charges. Now go home. Your conviction is already in this binder. Don’t mess with us.

Drug markets

It was the first so-called “drug market intervention,” aimed to clean up a specific neighborhood for good. It wasn't to prevent all drug sales — just to clear the streets of overt buying and selling, allowing kids to walk to school and families to stroll the streets again.

Before launching, High Point identified five “open air drug markets” in the city. “We took them one at a time,” said Marty Sumner, who became chief in 2012. As at Austin’s 12th and Chicon much later, those corner drug markets in High Point went quiet, Sumner said. The community life around them has since rejuvenated, and no new markets have emerged elsewhere in town.

West End, one of the roughest High Point open drug markets before the intervention, now has a new community center a Boys and Girls Club and new housing stock. “All of that happened since the intervention,” Sumner said. “And I guarantee you that if that were still an open drug market, you would not have any of that.”

From 1999 to 2011, the violent crime index in High Point fell 63 percent. The national average during that same period fell 48 percent, and the index in neighboring Greensboro fell a mere 12 percent. Today, High Point’s violent crime index has split sharply away from Greensboro’s, now hovering not far above the national norm.

Other opportunities

Two years ago, High Point, still forward looking, decided to go after domestic violence with the same model.

Working with Kennedy, officials marked out 100 targets citywide. Twenty-five at the top were extremely high risk, with profiles that closely matched likely homicides. Each had three or more domestic violence convictions and had already violated a protection order. These were arrested immediately and prosecuted on multiple, often unrelated charges.

With the rest, they built a rap sheet with every possible charge on it and sent a letter from the district attorney to each target. Same warning: everybody's watching you and if you don't stop, we'll find a way to take you off the street. Slip up, and it's over.

"We tell them, ‘you are going to do maximum time for your domestic violence offence,’ ” Kennedy said, ‘but we are also going to take advantage of all these other opportunities you give us. We may send you to federal prison for the gun charge, even though it has nothing to do with your latest attack on your girlfriend.’ ”

In the DNA

“High Point has this model in its DNA now,” Kennedy says, with a note of relief after years of struggling to make it stick. And cities around the country are lining up to learn from the source.

In the last few years, Sumner said, he's traveled to more than 25 cities to share his experiences, and he's lost track of how many departments they've hosted. "Every month we host a team from another city for training."

Marty Sumner is very aware of the dangers of diffusing focus. His department has worked aggressively over a five-year period to drive the approach into its DNA, as Kennedy puts it. "In places where it fell away really quick, it depended on a strong personality," Sumner said. High Point countered this by training every officer, making it part of hiring, training new officers, changing reporting, and adding it to promotion evaluations.

"Now, it's there," Sumner said. "You would not get in the door and start working at High Point without knowing the history, how it works here and how you'd play a role in it."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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