It turns out, 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. —David Kennedy
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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."