Hold your fire

David Kennedy, architect of Boston’s successful anti-gang strategy of the 1990s and author of a book describing it, is determined to show that the mayhem of urban gun violence can be stopped

DAVID KENNEDY IS an unlikely figure to be leading the charge on behalf of an innovative policing strategy to combat urban gun violence. For starters, he’s not a cop and has no law enforcement background. Though he’s a full professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the 54-year-old Kennedy has no formal training as a criminal justice academic, either. What Kennedy does have is credibility and standing that have been honed from the central role he played in the remarkable decrease in Boston homicides and gang violence in the mid and late 1990s.

The drop in gun violence gained national attention, and quickly was dubbed the “Boston Miracle.” The label has always bothered Kennedy, for the decrease in gun violence was not the mystical result of any divine intervention, but the product of a carefully thought out and focused strategy.

At the core of the approach, which Kennedy developed with academics and police officials while working at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was a strategy for dealing with gang members that relied on delivering a forceful message that gun violence would no longer be tolerated in the community. The beauty—and effectiveness—of the approach, which has come to be known as Ceasefire, was its limited focus. It was not an attempt to solve the root causes of urban poverty or to turn gangbangers into choirboys. The goal was to curtail the gun violence that was taking so many young lives and destabilizing urban neighborhoods.

Under the Ceasefire model, gang members, many of whom were under some form of court supervision through probation or parole, were ordered to attend meetings where they were met by a phalanx of law enforcement muscle. The gatherings often included not only police, but probation officers and state and federal prosecutors. Also present were clergy and youth outreach workers, who were there to say the community was fed-up with gang violence but also ready to extend a hand with jobs or schooling to those who were ready to put down the guns. The message from the law enforcement crowd: Stop the gunplay or we lower the prosecutorial boom on everyone affiliated with your group the next time there is a shooting that any member is involved in. The poster boy for these efforts became a Boston gangbanger named Freddie Cardoza, a career felon who received a federal prison sentence of 19 years and 7 months, with no possibility of parole, when caught carrying a single bullet.

In this way, the strategy carries a harsh, throw-the-book-at-them promise to gang members who don’t heed the message that the violence must stop. At the same time, the real aim of Ceasefire is to quell gun violence without locking up every perpetrator—and to focus on the small number of offenders responsible for most of the urban chaos. The ultimate goal is prevention, to get those involved to wise up and turn away from guns and gangs before a Freddie Cardoza-length federal sentence is imposed.

The strategy depends on making common cause with leaders of the affected neighborhoods, and it stands as the community-oriented alternative to the stop-and-frisk approach that has poisoned police-community relations in New York City. “We are destroying the village in order to save it,” Kennedy writes of the “orgy of incarceration” that is sending so many black men to prison.

Many of those involved in gang life, Kennedy says, get sucked in by the peer pressures of the street and are as scared as anyone of its deadly consequences. That makes them surprisingly open to a way out of the craziness, he says, which is exactly what the strategy gives them.

Ceasefire has been implemented in dozens of cities, often with almost immediate decreases of 25 or even 50 percent in gun violence. But it’s not easy to sustain. The effort in Boston fizzled out after a few years, and the same thing happened in many of the other early-adopter cities. The strategy depends on the relentless focus of a large cast of law enforcement and community players, something that Kennedy says requires a full-time coordinator and explicit commitment to its use from everyone involved. Those lessons are now being applied in the 70 cities that are part of the National Network for Safe Communities, a coalition Kennedy co-chairs that consists of law enforcement and community leaders committed to the Ceasefire approach.

Kennedy was shunned by Boston police officials when he publicly criticized the department’s turn away from the strategy in the early part of the last decade, a period that saw a significant increase in homicide and gang shootings. He has now been brought back into the fold as a consultant to the department under Police Commis­sioner Ed Davis, who has vowed a renewed commitment to the Ceasefire approach.

Kennedy has spent years on the road, explaining the strategy and coaxing police officials across the country to give it a try, telling them gang violence and open-air drug dealing do not have to be permanent fixtures on the urban landscape. “Give me half an hour before you decide I’m crazy,” is how he prefaced a presentation to a North Carolina police chief.

A 2009 profile of Kennedy in The New Yorker said there is a “High Plains Drifter” feel to him, “the mysterious stranger who blows into town one day and makes the bad guys go away.” It’s an image helped along by Kennedy’s preference for dark suits, beard, and shoulder-length hair, a combination that gives him the look of a more kempt and younger Willie Nelson.

Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College, recruited him in 2005 with the offer of a tenured professorship even though Kennedy’s formal education ends with a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College. Kennedy is “recognized in our field as one of the original thinkers who’s pushing the boundaries of both theory and practice,” says Travis.

A review paper published in April reported that 9 of the 10 studies that have carefully evaluated the Ceasefire approach found statistically significant crime reductions associated with its use. Travis, who co-chairs the National Network for Safe Communities with Kennedy, thinks the strategy is reaching a “tipping point” from which its use will spread much more broadly.

Last year, Kennedy committed the Ceasefire story to book-length treatment. Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellow­ship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America is part memoir, part criminal justice theory spun in narrative form. Kennedy can come off as brash, and his book doesn’t pull punches. He is dismissive of many popular claims about the causes of and cures for gang violence that he says don’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

“There’s sort of a delightful impatience about David,” Travis says of Kennedy. “He just wants the rest of the world to see what he has seen. Particularly when you put on top of this description his passion that we’re talking about saving lives, saving communities, and restoring communities to good health, there’s an understandable impatience that some people confuse with arrogance.”

I spoke with Kennedy by phone from his office in New York. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.


COMMONWEALTH: The Ceasefire story has its roots here in Boston. Can you take us back to the early and mid 90s and the situation on the ground in Boston neighborhoods as you started to delve into this work on urban gun violence?

DAVID KENNEDY: It was bloody chaos, and that’s not just Boston. What was going on in Boston was the same basic thing that was going on everywhere. The crack epidemic had unleashed a wave of violence that really was unprecedented in kind, in scope, in intensity. The homicide rate for young black men went up 400 percent in just a couple of years. On the ground in these places it just felt like Armageddon had been unleashed.

“Give me a half hour before you decide I’m crazy,” Kennedy told one
North Carolina police chief.

CW: How did you get started in this work?

KENNEDY: I got sucked into this whole area essentially working as a journalist. I wanted to be a serious nonfiction writer, but I had a wonderful job at the Kennedy School at Harvard writing teaching cases for the school. In the early ’80s and mid ’80s I ended up getting tapped at the school by a group that was interested in the then not very respectable idea of community policing. I got completely captured, not by policing as such, but by what the assignments I got showed me about what was going on in poor black neighborhoods all over the country. I found myself walking crack markets all over the country. But over those 10 years that I systematically went to the worst areas all over the country, they weren’t getting any better. What that led to in 1994 was a step out of that kind of Boswell role to something that was intended to be more active. Anne Piehl, an economist, and I put together a proposal to the Justice Department to try to do problem-oriented policing with the Boston Police Department around kids killing kids in Boston. Against all odds, the National Institute of Justice funded that work early in 1995, and very shortly after that, Anthony Braga [a Kennedy School criminal justice researcher] and I started working systematically with the Youth Violence Strike Force [the Boston Police anti-gang unit]. Our idea was, let’s try to figure out as a first step what is happening. We had a reasonably fancy set of ideas about how to gather different kinds of information —formal data, qualitative data, school surveys. We basically never did very much of that because when we hit Rox­bury and started talking to the guys in the Youth Violence Strike Force and others in BPD, they knew exactly what was going on and they told us, and it changed everything.

CW: What did they tell you?

KENNEDY: They told us something that was so profoundly different than the normal stories that were out there that I didn’t believe them. We sat in their beat-up conference room and they told us: They’re gang kids, there aren’t very many gang members, almost all of the killing and the dying is gang members, they mostly hurt each other. Every time we lose a kid we know who they are, not by going and running their records. We know them by name, by face. We know nearly every time who the killers are. A lot of these murders are going uncleared in the formal sense. They don’t come to a prosecution, we can’t make arrests, because people don’t talk. But do we know what happened? Yeah. We nearly always know what happened.

CW: There was also something striking about the basis for what was happening, right—the reason for the killings.

KENNEDY: Maybe the most unexpected and, again, to my mind, unreasonable thing that they said was that nearly none of this is about money. A big part of this story nationally had been everybody’s supposition that these guys are drug dealers, these are drug markets. You get ripped off or somebody tries to take your corner, you can’t go to the Better Business Bureau, you can’t file a civil suit, so you shoot the guy. It’s perfectly plausible, it’s internally consistent, everybody believes in it, and it just turns out not to be true. What the police gang unit guys knew was—yes, there are drug dealers and, yes, nearly everybody who pulls a trigger and the overwhelming proportion of those who get shot are members of these drug crews—and almost none of the violence is about money, drug turf, markets, bad debt, any of that kind of thing. Nearly all of the violence is personal. It’s vendetta. It’s back and forth, patterned, almost predictable violence between these groups. It’s respect, it’s disrespect. Your new boyfriend is a member of that group and I’m mad at him and he knows it, so he took a shot at me and I took a shot at him and the enemy of my friend is my enemy.

CW: From this very surprising set of revelations about the nature of youth gun violence came an equally surprising approach or structure to deal with it.

KENNEDY: We learned two huge things from the folks that we came to know [in the police gang unit]. One of them was that the shootings involved very small numbers of people. The other was what to do about it. We started hearing from the beginning of our time with them about something that they had done in Dorchester that had completely quelled the shooting by one of the most active gang drug crews in the city. I couldn’t connect the dots. Then there was literally one moment when one of the detectives, Fred Waggett, finally made me understand what had happened. What Fred said was: We were putting all kinds of pressure on them, and not just law enforcement pressure. If people wanted jobs, we set them up for summer jobs. We had the street workers and the Ten Point ministers in there, trying to calm people down. So we were focusing on this group in a very, very intense way. But what he then said was the single transformative moment in all of this, and it has been defining our work ever since: “We told them what it would take for us to stop, and what we meant by that was we were putting all this pressure on them because they were shooting. The Strike Force cared about violence.”

What I hadn’t understood was that all the time that they were putting all this pressure on this group, the Wendover Street crew in Dorchester, they were saying explicitly to them: “This is because of the shooting, and if the shooting stops, we’ll take things back to normal.” So they essentially gave the gang the tool it needed to make [the intensive police pressure] stop. The price they had to pay for all this special pressure to go back to normal levels was the shooting had to stop. That was an entirely new way of thinking about what we, at the time, were calling “demand reduction.” How do you do something about the desire for these young men to get and use firearms? The thing that nobody had thought of was raise the cost of the gunplay to the group to a level that’s so high they don’t want to pay it. It turned out that without any new law, any new resources, or anything fancy except a new idea about how to operate, street officers and their partners could actually do this and did it.

CW: So they had been practicing the principles of the Cease­­fire technique without having formalized it in any way?

KENNEDY: Yes. In my cumulative astonishment, I said to Fred, “You’ve done this before?” He said, very matter-of-factly, “Yeah. We do this sometimes.” And I said, “Well, what happened the other times?” And he said, “Oh, it always works.” That’s what became Operation Ceasefire, the platform for everything else in this whole area that has grown into a kind of school of approaches and a school of thought. It’s been used to shut down drug markets. It’s been used to stop street robbery, it’s being used as a central plank in probation reform. It’s being used to control knife crime in Glasgow, Scotland. It turns out to be a very, very powerful and still actively evolving framework.

CW: And you took the essentials of that and developed the more formal structure of the Ceasefire “call-ins” where you bring gang members in to lay all of this out?

KENNEDY: Yes. And all the formal theory and scholarship that comes out of that. There’s a whole new generation of deterrence theory and crime control thinking that you can now find in the journals and in academic treatments. It’s changing policing. It’s really changing the way we think about public safety. What I think people don’t understand is that it didn’t start with the theory and the scholarship, it started with street practice in Boston. It started by cops talking to gang kids on Wendover Street.

CW: Ceasefire in Boston was systematized and put into practice in 1996. Talk about what happened then.

KENNEDY: In March of 1996, we had the first meeting with gang members at the Dorchester Court, and we explained to a group called the Vamp Hill Kings what had just happened to them—we had orchestrated a very, very intense systematic crackdown because they had committed a bunch of homicides. We brought gang members in who were on parole and probation and from jail, and the street workers and the probation officers just talked some into showing up. We said to them, “This is business as usual. This is the way we are going to respond to violence. Go home, tell your friends, this is essentially up to you now. This is not a drugs conversation, it’s not a crime conversation. This is about shooting people. Where groups are shooting people, we are going to focus this kind of intense law enforcement attention.” The message was also that the street workers would like to help you; it was not just this iron fist message. The way we came to characterize the message was really simple: We know who you are, we know what you’re doing, we would like to help you. We will help you if you let us, and we will stop you if you make us. To our absolute astonishment, that immediately rippled through the city in a way that we could not have possibly anticipated. That one meeting started a big change on the streets. Things got really quiet. It was weird and unbelievable and surreal, but it seemed like something was happening.

CW: What were the numbers like over the next few years?

KENNEDY: We ran a formal evaluation that looked at the period between that first meeting in 1996 through the end of 1999, and we were tracking especially homicide victims 24 years old and under. They went down by two-thirds. Homi­cide across the city went down 50 percent.

CW: Going all the way back to the Great Society days in the ’60s, people have felt that the challenge in poor urban neighborhoods—and it extends into the challenge of quell­ing gang and gun violence—is to solve the big problems of the day around poverty, joblessness, dreadful schools, and so on. There’s been criticism of Ceasefire that it does nothing to address those root causes. In reading your book, it seems you plead guilty. Right?

KENNEDY: Yes. Absolutely.

CW: Explain that.

KENNEDY: There are three things to be said about that. One is many, many people are convinced that the way to address these problems is to foster fundamental change and uplift in the neighborhoods that have these problems. What has to be acknowledged about that position is that there are no examples of it working. There are literally no examples of troubled neighborhoods with high levels of gun crime and public drug activity and everything else that we’re talking about here where those problems have been meaningfully addressed through fundamental core community work.

CW: So I take it you decided to very self-consciously focus on very specific outcomes and behaviors that you’re looking to prevent?

KENNEDY: Yes. Lots of folks will look at that fact [that the root causes of urban violence have never successfully been tackled] and say, well that’s because we’ve never really tried it seriously. Even if we grant that, then we need both to show that we can get that investment and commitment, and that if we had that investment and commitment that it would be effective. The second point is, even if it worked, this is a process that will operate at best on a scale of decades and probably generations. For communities that are losing their kids every day, that’s not an effective response. This is sort of like distinguishing in medicine between trauma care and public health and long-term prevention. Each has merit and strengths. We can’t do fundamental uplift in these communities when we’re arresting all the men and sending them to prison. I have friends who are trauma surgeons. And when these [gang] guys get shot, the surgeons turn themselves inside out to keep them alive, and they’re pretty successful. We don’t say to them, what you do doesn’t matter because there are these other deeper problems he’s going back to. The third thing that I believe very firmly now is that you actually can’t do that fundamental community work when communities are experiencing this level of violence and fear and dislocation. We also can’t do fundamental uplift in these communities when we’re arresting all the men and sending them to prison. You can’t do economic development in a neighborhood where all the men have criminal records. We need a way for the law and law enforcement to operate that deploys authority in an effective way without resulting in mass incarceration.

CW: So you’re saying the gun violence prevention work is kind of like triaging the worst of what happens in urban neighborhoods?

KENNEDY: Yes. It doesn’t dishonor those other longer term goals. It just doesn’t confuse them.

CW: You write very forcefully that, contrary to a lot of the popular accounts of what happened here, the clergy-led efforts in Boston were not what led to the steep drop in gun violence. But you also discuss how vital it is to the Cease­fire effort to reset the often poisoned relationships between poor black communities and the police. A lot of this does have to do with local leadership—in Boston, the clergy were key to this. And a lot of it centers around race.

KENNEDY: I have enormous, enormous respect for that [the clergy-led efforts by the Ten Point Coalition and others]. And we always said that. What was so toxic about the way this played out in Boston was it was very clear if you looked at the evidence and the record that none of the things that people held up as having been solely responsible had worked. And you can fill in the blank there. Ten Point by itself didn’t work. Outreach workers by themselves didn’t work. The police department by itself couldn’t carry it. If you were serious about what had worked, what it was going to take to keep people alive, you had to recognize that. And in the toxic debate that arose in Boston, a lot of this was personalized to me being characterized as saying those things and those people didn’t matter. We never said that. It was never true. We went out of our way not to say that and to honor all these different contributions. You need this community stand saying this is not okay with us. You need police and people in law enforcement who are willing to say, even if you are on the street, we respect you enough to treat you like adults and tell you how the game is going to be played. You need people in the social service world who are willing to work with the 5 percent of the young men in these neighborhoods who are really out on this very, very extreme place.

CW: So that’s a resetting of the whole terms of community-police relations that is kind of a precondition for this all working?

KENNEDY: Or it’s part of the work. A big part of the work is bringing folks who are very angry and suspicious of one another to a place where they can see each other differently and work together. Communities really do believe in a very strong way that the cops are not their friend. They may believe that the cops are race enemies. They may believe that the cops are part of the conspiracy to bring the drugs in and use them as an excuse to lock their men up. And that makes them angry. That makes them silent. The cops can look at that silence and say, the violence must be okay with them, they never say anything. And that misunderstanding and anger and suspicion separates the two sides that need each other the most. And you can fix that. But you need to be explicit about it. You need to say what it is. You need to be very, very clear about what the views in each direction are. And you need to be very clear that they’re wrong and you need to be very clear that they’re irrational. They’re not crazy. But they’re not right.

CW: Give a sense of what the feeling is in the Ceasefire “call-ins.” The term itself has a sort of transformative kind of ring to it—a calling to account or something.

KENNEDY: They’re transcendent. They’re transformative. I’m not able to convey that. I’m really not. I’ve tried in various ways. But in all honesty, unless you’ve seen it, you don’t get it. You can’t get it. There’s an electricity and a power to what goes on that you only get in places like church or a tent revival or those sort of magic moments in public life or private life when the hair on your arms stands up. You see people who don’t like each other. They don’t trust each other. They have terrible ideas about each other. They are, many of them, convinced that the other is an enemy. They are convinced that the other is corrupt, that they’re “the other.” They can speak about things that are normally unspoken. They are pretty human and pretty familiar and they actually want the same stuff. And it’s—it’s unbelievable when it all clicks.

CW: In the book, you talk about how Ceasefire fizzled out quite badly here in Boston and in many other cities where it was first used. In the early 2000s we saw this resurgence of gun violence in Boston. At one point you came up, you met with Mayor Menino, you talked about the rationale for a return to Ceasefire. You say in the book that Ed Davis, the police commissioner, has now committed himself to its use. Gun violence is certainly not as bad as it was in the early 1990s, but neither is at the low levels we saw in the late 1990s. How do things look in Boston today?

KENNEDY: The city’s almost where it needs to be. The fact about these approaches is until all the pieces are there and operating correctly, you don’t see much in the way of results, and then when they’re all there and operating correctly, you get really dramatic changes, but they’re pretty binary in that way. Commissioner Davis understands this. He absolutely understands the place the city’s been in since about 2000, when it said it was doing this work but it wasn’t actually doing it. He is committed to getting it properly constructed and running and showing results. The one thing that’s missing at the moment is that one of the most fundamental ideas in Operation Ceasefire is that you address all or at least the key violent groups in a jurisdiction simultaneously. You get citywide effects by reaching out to all the groups that drive most of the violence and resetting their behavior. The approach that has been used is to calm down particular groups. The move that the department needs to make now is to move from that kind of tactic of using the approach to calm down a particular group to one of outreach to multiple groups at the same time.

CW: You write that a lot of this was serendipity that landed you in this work. But you have really become consumed by and focused by the tragedy of gun violence in poor black neighborhoods. It has really become, in many ways, personal for you.

KENNEDY: It absolutely has. Yeah. And it has also for the large and growing community of people committed to this way of thinking about things. It’s a group that’s intellectually serious about the work—and it has to be done well, it has to be done right. But what’s really driving everybody is this core sense of outrage about just how bad it is, and our collective understanding of what’s bad about it has expanded well beyond the original focus on people getting hurt, people getting killed. It’s mass incarceration, it’s these poisoned relationships between needy neighborhoods and people on the outside that honestly are trying to help them. It’s the way that alienation continues a toxic American story of race and race relations. It just goes on and on and on.

CW: And you have not just a hope, but a belief based on what’s happened, that it doesn’t have to be that way?

KENNEDY: That’s absolutely right. The reason it felt like it was time to write Don’t Shoot is because the work and the national experience and the research—it’s all gotten us to a point where we really feel that we can say with genuine grounding that we don’t have to accept this anymore. There is actually a way out of some of the worst of this. We’re far enough along to really know it.