Washington — In 1995, criminologist David Kennedy developed Operation Ceasefire — a unique framework for tackling inner-city violence — while in Boston with a research team.
The city had experienced a surge in gun-related homicides, so Kennedy, who was with Harvard University at the time, spent six months tracking crime, working closely with a Boston Police Department task force.
“Violence is driven by peer pressure and group dynamics,” typically involving young men’s responses to perceived disrespect, Kennedy said. Offenses are committed by a small number of people, even in the most troubled neighborhoods. But perpetrators don’t like what’s going on any more than residents do, according to Kennedy’s research.
Police in Boston had periodically put pressure on gang members, producing a significant — if temporary — cooling of neighborhood “hot spots.” Kennedy wanted to use an approach that would work more systematically.
His team collaborated with police, social workers and community leaders to set up meetings with young offenders, advising them that there would be no arrests but that nonattendance would have consequences. Police made it clear they were compiling evidence on offenders and would take action if necessary.
Offenders were invited to bring family members to these meetings, where local residents revealed how crime had scarred their lives.
Kennedy, who today directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said, “I have seen rooms full of 30, 40, 50 of the most dangerous gang members listen to the mother of a murdered young man explain how it’s affected her, and they respond with tears streaming down their faces.”
Relatives tell offenders that they are loved but that violence is unacceptable. Police reinforce the message by saying they don’t want to arrest anyone if they can avoid it, but according to Kennedy, it is the relatives’ and neighbors’ testimony that has the most powerful effect in deterring crime.
Police officers with whom Kennedy works have been surprised. Police may think that gang members are beyond redemption, but officers see offenders sit respectfully and listen. “The vast majority of gang members aren’t sociopaths, or this wouldn’t be effective,” Kennedy said.
For their part, gang members are surprised when police offer help and say, “We care about you; we don’t want to see you killed.”
DRAMATIC RESULTS WORLDWIDE
Within 12 months, Operation Ceasefire reduced youth homicide rates in Boston by 60 percent. Later, a corollary program to eliminate open-air drug markets — known as drug-market intervention (DMI) — was developed and spread to at least 100 U.S. cities, by Kennedy’s estimate. These cities see dramatic, sustained drops in crime; in High Point, North Carolina, where police introduced a DMI program, crime dropped by nearly 40 percent over a two-year span.
Other countries are taking notice. In Glasgow, Scotland, police have implemented their own version of Operation Ceasefire, focusing on stabbings. Other parts of the United Kingdom have expressed interest, as have Mexico, Colombia, Australia and some Caribbean Basin countries.
Kennedy’s theories are now integrated into policing in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said Desmond Arias, who teaches political science at John Jay College.
The Belo Horizonte program, known as “Fica Vivo” (Stay Alive), cultivates relationships between police and the community, while the Rio program offers state-run activities and leadership training to young people.
Some programs enlist former offenders, who provide compelling role models to gang members and drug dealers. “Someone who has walked in their shoes but turned himself around shows them that it’s possible,” Kennedy said.
His research has helped reduce crime, Kennedy added, in large part because he tapped into the fact that young offenders are eager for an “exit strategy” from violent crime that doesn’t make them lose face with their peers. Operation Ceasefire and DMI accomplish that, he said.
To learn more about Kennedy’s strategies for combating crime, visit the National Network for Safe Communities website.