Criminologist David Kennedy joins Stephen Smith to discuss how cities can end drug and gun violence.
Kennedy is best known for developing and implementing Boston's Operation Ceasefire, a program that helped dramatically reduce homicides among young adults. Kennedy also worked as a consultant with the Minneapolis police department in the 1990s.
Kennedy is currently director of the John Jay College Center for Crime Prevention and Control.
Stephen Smith: This is Bright Ideas, fresh thoughts on big issues from Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith. Each month, I invite a guest to the forum here at NPR headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas before a live audience. My guest this time is David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
David Kennedy is the author of a new memoir entitled, "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America." For more than 25 years, Kennedy has been walking the meanest streets in our nation, riding with the toughest cops, and interviewing the most hardened gang-bangers that there are.
It's been a journey with some wrong turns and with some stunning revelations. And Kennedy says he and his colleagues have arrived at a proven way to end inner-city gun violence and the public drug trade that goes along with it.
Please welcome David Kennedy.
Stephen Smith: So you were not formally trained as a criminologist. You were philosophy major?
David Kennedy: History minor.
Smith: Philosophy major, history minor. OK. Yet, it became your life's work. Can you tell us the story about how you found yourself in the worst part of Los Angeles about 25 years ago?
Kennedy: Much to my surprise.
Kennedy: So none of this was premeditated, and I'm still kind of surprised by the whole thing. So what happened was, I followed the wrong woman to Boston after college...
Smith: That could get anybody into a life of crime.
Kennedy: And wanted to be a writer. So I found myself in Boston. I wanted to be John McPhee. I wanted to write for "The New Yorker." Very literally, that was what I had in mind.
Smith: The legendary essayist.
Kennedy: The legendary essayist. And I was doing freelance magazine work, mostly different kinds of science and technical writing. And you can't make a living at that, or I couldn't anyway. And I landed a fantastic day job at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The Kennedy School is a professional school. It's not a political-science department, it's for people who want to work in and around government. And as a professional school, it does it a lot of its teaching by the case method, the same way a business school would.
Smith: The case-study method.
Kennedy: The case-study method. And they had, and have, a very sharp, small office there that is on-call to write the case studies for the faculty, and that's what I did for 15 years. And as far as I was concerned, I was learning my trade. The point, for me, was always that, at some point, I was going to leave that behind. And what I really wanted to do was write literary nonfiction.
Smith: So the things that you were writing for the Kennedy School were on a wide range of topics. They weren't on criminal justice.
Kennedy: All kinds of stuff. If you've had a chance to think about this recently, which I didn't do for a long time... What you realize about writers is that they're kind of serial intellectual monogamists. They devote themselves to something and are passionate about it, and then it's done and they move on to the next thing.
Smith: Then they dump it.
Kennedy: They dump it, in a heartbeat, and often never look back. And that's what I was doing, and so wrote about strategic issues and intelligence analysis and public management and all kinds of stuff.
And after a couple of years of doing that, I got another assignment, and it was just that as far as I was concerned. But it was with a group at the Kennedy School that was focused on the state and future of policing, and they were convinced, and they were right, that policing as we then knew it, and mostly as we still know it, was bankrupt. The business model was a failure.
Smith: What era is this?
Kennedy: This is the early 1980s, at this point.
Kennedy: And there were a couple of ideas floating around that had no currency at all at the time. One of them was community policing. And the group that I was working with kind of put community policing on the map over the next 10 years or so. But they tapped me to write these case studies. So the idea was that I would go around the country, and to some extent internationally, and look at cutting-edge police practice.
And so, I hit the streets in the U.S. in about 1985, and this was the beginning of the crack epidemic. So when I started hitting crack markets... I always have to say "in a professional capacity." Crack hadn't shown up on the East Coast yet.
Smith: Why don't you stop just for a moment. And we'll keep going on with your personal story, but tell a little bit about what it was like when crack really took hold in America. It was such a powerful and devastating phenomenon.
Kennedy: I actually have a very hard time describing it. I honestly think that, if you weren't in those neighborhoods and close to it when it was going on, it's almost unbelievable how toxic it was.
What everybody saw from the outside was the body count, and the gun-homicide rate for mostly young black men went up about 300 percent in a couple of years. And what you saw, if you were actually in those neighborhoods, was a state of siege. People were afraid to come out of their houses.
The crack markets were public, and they took over, literally, people's front lawns, their streets, their corners, their parks. People were afraid to leave their houses. They were afraid to go outside. There had been drug epidemics before, but as bad as they were, even the first heroin epidemic, they weren't as public and they weren't as penetrating as crack was.
Smith: If I remember correctly, it's in part because crack cocaine was, on the one hand, relatively inexpensive and, on the other hand, incredibly addictive.
Kennedy: Both those things. And it had a kind of reach that heroin never did, particularly, and this was of dire significance for family and community life in these neighborhoods.
Kennedy: Women really liked crack in a way that they had not flocked to heroin, and it tore these communities apart.
Smith: So you ended up in one neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Kennedy: Nickerson Gardens, yeah. So Nickerson Gardens is one of the biggest public housing projects in the country. It is in Watts in LA, and it is on the border with Compton. And nobody knows how crack hit the United States. Literally, nobody knows what happened. But whatever it was that did happen, it looks like ground zero was Compton and that corner of Los Angeles, so it really was where it all began.
And the first policing trip I took in the United States took me to LA, because LAPD, despite its reputation, was doing some very interesting, progressive things. Some of those were focused on crack markets. Some of it was focused on Nickerson Gardens. And so, literally, my first week doing this stuff, I found myself walking Nickerson Gardens with two big black beat cops.
Smith: What was that like for a guy from the Kennedy School of Government?
Kennedy: I'm not a Marine or a Special Air officer.
Smith:You weren't a Marine. You weren't a superhero.
Kennedy: Not Superman, none of those things. And I say this in the book, I have, before or since, never been nearly so scared in my entire life.
I really thought that, if these guys turned their backs and walked away from me, that... And I say this in the book because I can't do any better. All that would ever have been found of me was my bleached bones. And I don't think that was an overactive imagination. It was Beirut. And what I saw that first day I have seen since over and over and over and over and over and over.
And it's not just Nickerson Gardens anymore, this stuff is all over the country. It's not just the peak of the old crack years. This stuff is still there in neighborhoods all over the country. But it was kind of triple-distilled, and it was my idiot white counterparts driving in in their BMWs and buying crack and never even getting out of their cars and driving out again.
It was the young black men serving them. It was the groups of drug dealers owning their little corners. It was the black grandmothers literally afraid to walk out of their apartments. You looked at the walls, and they were cratered where they'd taken gunshots. Those are the facts, and what you could smell was the fear and the alienation and the terror and the despair. It is unconscionable.
Smith: You sort of made a decision there. It seems like, if I'm reading your book correctly, you made a decision that you were going to stop being the case-study writer, if you could, and concentrate on this particular problem.
Kennedy: I didn't. What I didn't realize was that I'd been captured.
Kennedy: And it took about 10 years, actually, for me to realize that I had been captured. And it was 10 years of still thinking, actually, that I was going to put all this down at some point and go be John McPhee.
Kennedy: But what happened during that time was that I became more and more and more focused on all of this and got to know these folks and their larger, national circle that were working on these policing and public-safety issues, spent most of my time abroad, out in the neighborhoods, all over the country, seeing more and more and more and more of this and becoming increasingly obsessed and desperate about it.
Smith: So what was the state of the art, if you will, at the time that you started really spending time in these neighborhoods? What was the state of the art in policing? Community policing was a new idea. That's where cops would get out of their cars and patrol the beat on foot, or maybe on a bike. But in terms of dealing with the open-air drug markets and gun violence, what were the cops doing?
Smith: OK, they were failing. But what was their tactic?
Kennedy: So the question was, "What was it then?" The answer is, the same as it is now. For whatever progress has been made in policing, these issues and these neighborhoods are dealt with now almost the same way as they were then. And it doesn't work. It causes unintended damage, in fact.
But you would say to these police departments, not just the guys on the ground but their superiors, the ones who were supposed to be in charge of all this and figuring it out... And they would say, "Well, we're patrolling. We're doing buy-busts. We're sending undercovers in. We're serving warrants. We're kicking doors in. We're going after the middlemen. We're climbing the ladders. We're going after the kingpins. We're clearing corners."
Which, for those of you who don't know that phrase, means that, if you are a young black man in these neighborhoods and you are standing out on your corner, then cops roll up on you and tell you to get out. And everybody knows what will happen if you don't, and so you do. It is illegal, it is unconstitutional, and it is the normal experience of young men in these neighborhoods.
They were doing a few things in a few places like DARE and Police Athletic Leagues, and trying to do some things with the kids. And none of it made any difference.
Smith: One of the things that was known, I think, was pretty common knowledge among criminologists at the time, is that, when it comes to violence and gang violence, it's a relatively small number of people who are actually involved in shooting and killing, that a neighborhood can feel very violent but the actual perpetrators are relatively few in number.
Kennedy: So it should have been known among criminologists, but it wasn't. So this was one of the fascinating things about the next phase of this, which was actually going to ground in Boston and trying to figure out what was happening. But the conversation at the time was exactly the opposite of, "It's a few people." The conversation at the time was, "It's everybody. It's the neighborhood, it's young black men."
John Dilulio and some of his colleagues had coined this awful word, "super-predators," which was very thinly veiled, "It's the young black men," talk. And their analysis was, and I can quote this, "The biggest, baddest generation any civilization has ever known," where people were writing off an entire generation of young black men.
And on the liberal side, it was, "It's the community, it's families, it's at risk kids. It's the general availability of guns in these neighborhoods." What was central to all of these diagnoses was, "It's huge, it's everybody, you can't differentiate, you can't tell."
Smith: Excuse me one second. But your finding was that it was quite the opposite.
Kennedy: We were taught that it was opposite. And I believed a lot of that. So I didn't believe in the worst super-predator kind of nonsense. But I did believe it was big and amorphous, because that's what everybody believed, except for the street cops in Boston, as it turned out.
And so, there came this moment in my own history on this when I got really tired of being a kind of quasi-academic. So I had really been welcomed into this Kennedy School circle. I was not qualified, I didn't punch my ticket properly.
Smith: You didn't have a PhD.
Kennedy: I didn't have a PhD. I didn't have anything. They let me in anyway, which was fantastic. And the academic culture on this is that you keep your distance and you get the answers, and you hand those over to people who do things. And then the world gets better. And we were just not seeing the world get better.
And with a couple of Kennedy School colleagues, we got frustrated enough by this that we applied for and got a grant from the Justice Department to actually try to go in and do some of the new policing work in Boston.
And so, this is 10 years later, this is 1995. And the crack epidemic is now national, kids are dying everywhere. We were... Boston was nothing like the worst of it, but it was bad enough that we were losing a kid a week in Boston, and six, eight, 10 non-fatals for everybody. It was just Armageddon.
And we set up with what was basically the gang unit in the Boston Police Department. And literally, literally, the first day we sat down with them, they said, "We know what's going on out there." And they told us a story that not only we, but nobody in my world had ever heard before. And it was that it was a tiny known population of young men that were doing this.
So what they said to us was, "We know what's going on. It's gang kids." And what they meant by gang was kind of loose, drug crew. Boston didn't have People and Folks and Crips and Bloods. And MS-13 had had these neighborhood drug sets, and they called them gangs.
There aren't that many gangs, there aren't that many kids in them. We know the kids by name because they are fantastically active offenders, and we know them because they're out there hustling. Every time we lose a kid, we knew him before he was killed by face, from the neighborhood, from the corner.
Smith: Yeah, Boston, even though the police there knew these people individually, they were still kind of doing the more wholesale approach to fighting the drug trade and the violence at large.
Kennedy: They were, but they were also doing what turned out to be some fantastically crafty stuff. And it wasn't enough to turn the tide, but it also turned out to be the model for what did turn the tide.
So they told us this story about how the streets worked. And I didn't believe them, and they were right. So we took their lead, we did the research that we knew how to do.
And the answer in Boston was 61 crews, 1300 mostly young adult men. All of them, basically, drug dealers, virtually none of the violence being about the drug trade... The violence was honor code stuff, it was respect and disrespect and the enemy of my friend is my enemy. And our groups are shooting each other. It was not about making money.
Smith: It was about what they call "beefs," having a beef with someone.
Kennedy: Beefs and vendetta, basically. We've got some police officers from St. Paul and we were just talking about vendetta, because that's how this stuff works. Radically, dramatically different picture than anybody else believed. And then, you really knew what was happening.
Smith: Why did they let you in? I mean, they knew what was happening. Were they doing the right thing with the knowledge that they had?
Kennedy: They were killing themselves to fix this. And it wasn't working, except in one very small respect, which I'll get to in a minute.
But they taught us this, and this is really important in understanding how this all happened and how a lot of the best public safety work has been happening for a while in this country, which is that... This did not come from Harvard. We didn't take this to them and say, "We're experts, listen." They showed us it. And out of that partnership came something really, really different.
But they were fantastically committed. They were creative, and we were still losing a kid a week. It was just not working. But then they showed us something else. And also, literally the first time we talked with them in 1995, they explained this to us, where they pointed us at it. Because it took about six months to understand it.
But they turned out to have this thing that they did from time to time when one of these groups really got off the hook. And what they would do, it turned out, once we finally got it, was... They would go to the group. Because they knew the groups, they knew who was in the groups, they knew when one of these groups was shooting the place up at an exceptionally high level.
And they would say to these gang members, "Once again, we know who you are, we know what you're doing. You are the most violent group in Boston right now, which means we are going to put all of our attention on you. We are here because of the shooting. And we are going to now take advantage of all the crimes you are committing."
For every shot fired, there are scores of drug deals and drug use and they have outstanding warrants and they're on probation, they're on parole. They're violating their terms and conditions. They've got open cases, they've got cases they thought they walked away from. They've got unregistered cars, they're not licensed drivers. Just all this stuff.
And the normal world of police and bad guys is that the police try to stop everything and the bad guys get away with almost everything they do. And what my new partners in Boston did was turn that on its head. And they went to the group and they said, "Until you put your guns down, we are going to focus all of our attention on every crime and legal vulnerability that you've got. And when we focus like that, we're going to win and you're going to lose.
"And if you want that attention to continue, keep shooting. But if you want it to go back to the status quo, not a free pass, not, 'We'll wink at your drug dealing,' but back to the way it normally is, when sometimes you win and sometimes we win, put your guns down." And it turned out that, every time they did this, eventually they got the gang's attention and things stopped.
Smith:You're right, it's very much like what they would do to prevent or deter the gangs from shooting cops. They'd say, "You shoot one of us, we're going to come down on you with everything we've got. We're going to shut you down, we're going to make you miserable." And so, they just realized it wasn't worth the cost.
Kennedy: Exactly right. And it took us a while to see this. But we did finally get it. And you realize that this is precisely the signals that law enforcement sends about shooting cops.
So everything you just said, plus one other thing, which is that... The streets know that, if you shoot a cop and you're part of a drug crew or a gang or something like that, law enforcement is not going to stop with the shooter. They will roll up everybody for something. And because all these groups that drive all this stuff in the neighborhoods know that, nobody shoots cops, almost literally.
And it's not that all these gang members are nice people who like cops. They just know that that's the way the world works. And so, what we proceeded to do in Boston was systematize that message to these drug crews all across the city.
So we finally saw what the cops and their partners in Boston were doing, and we had this extraordinary moment when we all realized, you can actually operate like this. And then we spent about six months building it into a citywide operation. And that's what came to be called Operation Ceasefire in Boston. So we began all this in January of 1995. And by May of 1996, we began a series of formal staged meetings with gang members.
Smith: You called them "call-ins."
Kennedy: We called them "forums."
Kennedy: In the beginning, yeah. They get called "notifications" and "call-ins," but we called them forums in the beginning. And it was borderline crazy. Go to people now and...
Smith:You're having community meetings with the gang members and the cops.
Kennedy: It was a sit down, face-to-face meetings by invitation with the worst street offenders in the city of Boston.
Smith: And what do the police think of this, at this point? Are they with you? Are they giving something up to have to do this?
Kennedy: Well, the cops we'd been working with got it. Because, just to say it again, they had taught us the logic here. And we'd had 18 months to kind of absorb all of this new wave of thinking.
Smith: So you're having these meetings, and what's the message that you're giving to the gang bangers?
Kennedy: "Don't shoot." It was really simple, and that took some figuring out. Because the world that law enforcement is in most of the time is one in which you say to these guys, "We know everything you were doing. We know who you are. You're not going to sell drugs in my neighborhood. You're not going to spit on the sidewalk. I know where you sleep. I know your girlfriend. I know your mother. I know everything that you do."
And that's what's the streets are used to hearing. They know it's nonsense. They know it's bluster. It just goes right over their heads and it should because it's fraudulent. It is a lie. We cannot stop everything. We do not know everything. They get away with almost everything. So when you say to them, "We know everything your doing," in effect you're saying to them, "And we're letting you do it." A lot of them actually do believe that.
So this was exactly the opposite. It was, "This conversation is about the shooting, and the killing and the violence. It is going to stop." And we didn't even say what we would have liked to say which is, on the law enforcement side, "We're going to crack down on every group that shoots somebody." Because even that's a promise we couldn't keep.
Right before we kicked off Operation Cease Fire, we had one month in Boston in which we lost 12 kids to homicide. It was not in the power of combined Boston law enforcement to go address those 12 gangs, couldn't do it. So we said something very simple. We said, "This is about the violence. And the next gang in Boston that puts a body on the ground, we're going to go there and we're going to roll them up."
There was a community message. There was a social services message. The law enforcement message was, "Don't' be the next group in Boston that kills somebody."
Smith: And so, what happened?
Kennedy: We had two meetings. The first meeting was to announce a gang crackdown that had already happened. It was to say, "We did this. This is how we're operating now."
We had a couple of months in between the first meeting and the second meeting. And what we saw in that intervening time was, the day after the first meeting, the streets in Boston were buzzing. Nobody had ever done anything like this forum before. And things felt like they calmed down a lot right away, and nobody believed it. It was just too weird, but things got really quiet.
We saw gangs start to act up and we sent messengers to them. This is about talking to people. And the messengers said, "You're acting up. We're watching. Don't let it go any further because, if it does, we're going to do to you what we did to these other people." And every time we delivered that message, those crews gentled down with one exception which was a group called the Intervale Posse in Roxbury. They didn't listen and they were our second gang.
Smith: The second gang you cracked down on?
Kennedy: The second gang we cracked down on. My Boston police partners called in DEA. They did a quick and dirty drug operation on this group, arrested a lot of them on federal and, ultimately, RICO conspiracy charges.
And then we had a second round of meetings. And in that second round, we said, "Everybody else listened. Intervale didn't listen, so we did what we said we were going to do. We're going to keep on doing this if you make us. We don't want to. This is just about stopping the violence. But we can do it and we will follow the violence where the violence is." And the whole city shut down. It was weird.
Smith: The criminal underground part of the city shut down?
Kennedy: The shooting just stopped. I mean, almost literally. I've had occasions to remember some of this stuff which was vivid 20 years ago and isn't so vivid now.
One of the things that actually happened a couple of months into the new quiet was that Gary French, who was the Lieutenant in charge of the gang unit, came into one of our meetings. This was the days of beepers and Gary, like a lot of the command staff, would get beeped every time there was a homicide or a shooting. And he had taken his beeper to technical services at the Boston Police Department because he thought it was broken.
Smith: Because it wasn't going off enough?
Kennedy: Because it wasn't going off. It was that big of a difference.
Smith: One of the other key lessons that you learned along the way in the various cities that you worked in developing this approach is the disconnect... I mean, we all are familiar with the disconnect between the police and the local community. That's a familiar story. But there's a certain narrative on the community side that is powerful and powerfully sort of wrong about why crime is happening.
Can you talk about that and what the police and local community needed to do to get past that narrative?
Kennedy: So it's not just the one narrative. It's a narrative on the part of law enforcement as well. So the story that we've been telling has been one primarily about the power of law enforcement operating in a different way to do deterrents in effect and change the behavior of folks that everybody has already pretty much given up on. And they are rational and they will listen, that turns out to be a fact.
But they listen to more than law enforcement. They will listen to their own. And it turns out that the power of the community voice in speaking to the five percent of the young men in the most dangerous neighborhoods that are actually driving the violence, the power of the community voice is extraordinary.
And it also turns out that the community hates what's going on. We make a terrible mistake a lot in looking at the violence and the drug activity, and the rest of this terrible stew, and saying, "They like it. It's OK with them." My favorite, "It's cultural." No, it's not.
Smith: Or, if they really objected to it, people in these communities would do something about it. They'd get up and they'd shout. They'd protest and et cetera.
Kennedy: And that is the key point. The communities are not usually consistent and public and explicit about the fact that they hate what's going on. They don't want their young dying. They don't want everyone going to prison and they don't want drug dealers on their corners.
Law enforcement and a lot of the rest of us on the outside look at that silence and we draw the wrong conclusion. The conclusion we draw is, "They don't care." Or, as a lot of my narcotics friends say, "Everybody's living off drug money," which is false.
Smith: So silence is a form of consent.
Kennedy: And we take it as that and it's not consent. It's anger.
So there are these two perfectly symmetrical narratives. There's a narrative of the outside looking at the silence and saying, "Everybody is complicit. Nobody cares." And there is the narrative of these communities, particularly the hardest hit African American communities, and that narrative is frequently...
So the mild version is, "They're not helping. They're not fixing it. They're not going to fix it." And if we keep on doing what we've been doing, that's right. We're not going to fix it.
The strong version is, "This is all happening because the cops on the outside want it to happen. They are doing this to us deliberately."
Smith: They're allowing the illegality to continue, the drug dealing and violence to continue.
Kennedy: It's worse than that. It's not just "letting," it's making. So the strong version of this story is that...
So you said it was "mistaken." And only about five percent of it is mistaken. The rest of it is horrifically true. And the true part is, the community says, "Our history in this country has been one of deliberate conspiratorial oppression under the color of law." And that is true.
Smith: So we're talking about segregation, Jim Crow?
Kennedy: It goes back to slave camps, the whole thing, being brought to our shores under duress to the power of the whites in law enforcement over black persons, the black family and the black community to the fighting of the black soldiery in the civil war and the taking away of emancipation by the Black Codes.
Under reconstruction, the Black Codes were done away with and Jim Crow was put in place. Jim Crow was, after 100 years, done away with in the civil rights era.
And the story in the black community is, "When America needed another way to continue the harm they have always done us, what they came up with was drugs and drug enforcement. The CIA invented crack. Everybody knows that. Ollie North was part of bringing it into the country under the Regan administration.
The cops have all the power. They could keep the drugs out. They could keep the guns out. We're not making money. The money all goes someplace else. The point is to do us harm and to find a continued excuse to lock up all of our strong young men."
Smith: And this is a view not just of the people engaged in gang activity, these are the grandmothers and the uncles and the aunts as well. It's a community sensibility or sense.
Kennedy: It is a dominant sensibility in many of these neighborhoods, and not just in these neighborhoods. I have had exactly this conversation with black elected officials. Michelle Alexander has a wonderful book out right now which is correctly getting a lot of attention called "The New Jim Crow." She is a very prominent civil rights lawyer and makes this same case.
Smith: But you found that these same two diametrically interlocking narratives almost, essentially that you really have to break them in both places? This is kind of the next key revelation. You've got to break these narratives to make anything happen.
Kennedy: And they feed on each other. So we've touched on this already, but it's really important to see the ways in which these ideas fuel each other. So the community thinks, at best, the cops aren't going to help. And at worst, they are part of a deliberate plan to do them damage.
And it is not the case that the cops are conspiring to bring the drugs in. It is the case that, in the name of protecting the community, we are doing enormous damage to these neighborhoods in the name drug enforcement, in the name of preventing the violence. In many of these neighborhoods, all the young men end up with felony records. All of the men have gone to prison. In some neighborhoods, that is almost literally true. Everybody has been jailed.
People get stopped. Many times they get stopped illegally. People get their doors kicked in. It doesn't solve the problem. It doesn't do away with the violence. It doesn't get rid of the drugs. And the community looks at that and says, "They're doing it because they want to." And in a very real way, that's true. We are choosing to do this even though we know it doesn't work.
It makes the community silent. Nobody treats with terrorists. You wouldn't do it. I won't do it and the neighborhood won't do it. And when standing up and saying, "Put your guns down and don't' stand on my corner and sell drugs," means calling in the outside oppressor on your own people and standing with them... When people believe all of what we've been talking about, people won't do it. It doesn't mean they like it. But they won't say, "I don't like it."
We, on the outside, look at that and say, "They don't care, everybody's living off drug money," so we stop them and kick their doors in and manhandle them, and that makes the community angrier and more withdrawn, and we are in this spiral of decline.
Smith: How have you effectively decoupled and re-channeled those narratives? What have you been able to do? First of all, how do you talk to cops about this and change their worldview, and how do you talk to the community and change its worldview?
Kennedy: I said the scaredest I've ever been in my life was walking Nickerson Gardens. The second scaredest I've ever been was the first time I stood in front of a room of cops and said, "This is why the neighborhood hates you."
What you do is translate. I have been extraordinarily lucky to be able, over the 25 years I've been doing this, to spend time in the three communities that are centrally interwoven in all of this. This is to simplify things, but it's not that bad.
We've got the cops. We've got what we usually call the community, which means what we think of as the good people in the neighborhood. And there is the community of the streets, there is the gang members and the drug dealers and all that.
When you absorb the way they live and think and feel, it turns out that it's all quite understandable. But it's rare for folks to filter around like that and understand, at least to a reasonable degree, the cops and the neighborhoods and the street guys.
What you do is, you explain one to the other. To the cops, you say, "Look, I know you're not a racist predator. You're my friends. We know each other. I know that's not what this is about. But they really believe it. Whether you believe they're right or not, you have to take seriously that they believe it and why they believe it."
Here's why they believe it. It is the community experience with law enforcement. I work with people who were in their parents' and grandparents' homes when the Klan came in and lynched them. They were there. This is living memory in the community. You look at the pictures of the lynched, and look at how many of them have their hands handcuffed behind their back. Everybody in the community knows what that meant.
We are stopping them. We are giving all the young men felony records. We are kicking their doors in. We are stopping everybody, not just the five percent. The good kids, the mothers, the grandmothers, everybody gets treated disrespectfully. We're locking up all the men.
It's not working. You know it's not working. You know, if you're honest, the damage it's doing. We keep on doing it. It is not, in any way, irrational to think that we're doing it for bad reasons. You never give people the respect of saying to them, "I'm not working for the CIA. I'm doing the best I can." Behind closed doors, the cops all know it's not working. They never say it out loud.
To the community, and this part's even simpler... To the community, you say, "Look, you have more than ample reason to be outraged, historical reason and present reason. But nobody can set standards for your community from the outside."
"If the only people saying, 'Don't shoot' and 'Don't stand on the corner and sell drugs' are in uniform, from outside your neighborhood, they can't carry this. They have less than no standing. The only people who can say, 'Here's how the community wants to live' is the community, and you're not doing it."
Smith: If I have it correctly, there's a third big component in what you have uncovered over the years in effectively dealing with violence and drugs. It's something that, if there was a turning point, it seems like High Point, North Carolina was a place where this came into being.
You were sitting gang members down and saying, "We're going to pay special attention to you." You were engaging the police and the community in unlocking these misunderstanding narratives of each other. Then there was a third thing which was essentially engaging in an agreement with the criminals, the gang members, about a possible way out. Can you explain what that was in High Point?
Kennedy: Sure. All of these pieces were visible from the beginning. But I, at least, wasn't bright enough to see them. From the beginning, we would issue these new law enforcement promises. We had social services there. We had community people there.
In particular, we had no conception of the power of this community voice. In the homicide work, where we began with this, people were so distraught about the violence that it papered over these differences between law enforcement and the community and the other partners. Everybody would come together and try to stop the killing.
You start talking about drugs and it brings all these differences right to the surface, because the community narrative about the drugs and the CIA and these historical dynamics are so powerful that it just bursts out.
Smith: The police in High Point, their ambition, if I remember correctly, was not necessarily to target the gun violence, but to target the open drug market.
Kennedy: Right. High Point, along with Minneapolis, actually, was one of the first cities after Boston to embrace this way of doing the work. They had been dealing with the gun violence since about 1997. But when you reach in and stop the shooting, basically what you've done is discipline the drug groups and the drug markets. The drugs are still there. The drug markets, the open-air dealing, the crack houses, they're still there.
The next thing we wanted to try was to shut those markets down. If, in these hard-hit neighborhoods, the shooting stops and the open drug stuff goes away, that's 80 percent of their public safety need right there. They then can take a deep breath and start putting themselves back together.
What stood in the way of moving on to the drug work, it turned out, was the conviction on the part of the police that the neighborhoods were corrupt. For 10 years, I tried to get people to take this next step. What the police said boiled down to, "There's no community to work with. Everybody's living off drug money."
High Point, North Carolina, was the first city that didn't say that. Therefore, the first drug market operations happened there. It was the first place we went through what we now call this "truth telling and reconciliation" work.
The chief of police in High Point, a Texan named James Fealy, had the personal background and the courage to say, "Not only has it not been working, but we have been playing into all these awful historical truths, and I'm going to say so."
He went to these black communities in High Point and began the conversation with them by saying, "I'm sorry." It was the most amazing thing.
He said, "This has not been working. I realize that we have been pretending we can solve this. We can't solve it. We want to work with you in a new way, and I need something from you, too. I need you to say to the drug dealers that you want them to stop."
The community basically said, "This is what we've been waiting for." The goodwill on the part of these agonized neighborhoods is extraordinary. So they did that. There was one other idea here, which was that the trouble in these neighborhoods is not the drugs. The neighborhoods say to us all the time, "There's as much dope in the suburbs as here, but it's only our young men that are going to prison, hand over fist."
They are right about that. Essentially all the research, all of our experience says that's right. What's different about the suburbs is that the drug market is quiet. It's not that there's no dope there. It's that the dealing is face-to-face and behind closed doors, and there's nobody standing on your front lawn. If I don't know somebody in that neighborhood, I can't drive in and buy from a white high school student without getting out of my car.
What High Point understood was, the point was to shut down the public market. And we did that. We picked the worst drug market in the city. The cops thought there were hundreds of drug dealers there. They shook hands with me that they would actually really go deep and figure out what was going on.
There were under 20 drug dealers, but they'd been stopping everybody in the neighborhood there and making everybody angry and fueling these dynamics we've been talking about. About four of them turned out to be violent, and they got arrested and prosecuted. And everybody else, we went to their house, we went to their mother, we went to their grandmother, and we invited them all to a meeting.
Again, nobody had ever done this before. Deputy Chief Marty Sumner and I sat there, 10 years after the first meeting in Boston, sweating bullets in the High Point police department, wondering if any of these guys were going to walk in.
Smith: You invited the drug dealers, but you also invited them to bring somebody they trusted along.
Kennedy: We found somebody who cared about them so mostly mothers and grandmothers, but some other folks as well. We reached out to them. We explained what was going on. We had cases against these guys. There had been buys made against them. There was a formal invitation, a written letter from Chief Fealy, to these guys saying, "Come to the meeting. It's not a trick, we're not going to arrest you."
Smith: But we will if you don't come.
Kennedy: But we have the case ready to go. There's some creative ambiguity here. And on the day, almost everybody walked in, and they walked in with their mothers and grandmothers and the people who were important to them.
Smith: And what was the offer? What did you say to them?
Kennedy: We said to them, "You are out of the drug business. This is not a negotiation. We've got everybody who is dealing in this drug market. There is going to be no more public drug market in the west end neighborhood of High Point, North Carolina.
We have come to understand what it does to you and your family and your community when we send you to prison and ruin you for the rest of your life. Your community does not want us to do that, but your community is about to tell you how much they need you to stop," which they did in absolutely no uncertain terms.
Smith: So the key here is that the "we" that you're talking about... The "we" is not just the cops, the mayor, and the researchers, it's the people from the community who had previously been saying, "The cops and everybody else are a conspiracy against us." They're now part of the plan.
Kennedy: Right. And it's not even primarily the cops. What turns out to really have the voltage here is the neighborhood. And the neighborhood is tougher on the dealers than the cops could or would ever be. You have not lived until you have seen a six-foot-three be-muscled tattooed drug dealer hanging his head while the grandmother on the block rips a strip off his...
Smith: She has moral authority.
Kennedy: She has moral authority. And in good communities and healthy communities people don't behave because they're terrified of the cops, right?
Smith: They behave because of the morals of code that you live by.
Kennedy:...Behave because you do the right thing and everybody knows that. And the magic turns out to be... And it is very nearly magical, except it's real and you can make it happen, to help the community to a place where that latent power becomes real and it changes everything.
And this was not a negotiation either. The cops said to these guys, "We're not asking. We're going to hang on to it, what we call 'bank it.' We're not going to sign the warrant. You go back out to the corner, we will sign the warrant, so you're on notice. The next time you go sell, we're going to pick you up, because we're going to know and we're ready to go."
Didn't have to do it hardly at all. And that was May of 2004 in one of the worst drug markets in the state of North Carolina. And the morning after the meeting, it went away and it's never come back.
Smith: So I want to go back. You mentioned Minneapolis. You were here in the mid '90s. Can you quickly tell me the story of that, what you did, and did it work?
Kennedy: Yeah. So at this point we can do it very quickly. It was the first place my team went after Operation Ceasefire in Boston. We started here in January of 1997. We went operational early in June that same year and only took about six months to put it together.
It worked even better than it did in Boston. We, again, could hardly believe it, but we kicked off early in the summer, and there was an over 80 percent reduction in homicide the summer of 1997. Again, it just stopped. And the larger story is the same as ultimately in Boston, and for a while in many other places, that the city let it fall apart.
Smith: Because it depends on certain people who are in certain positions, and when they move on the attention fades? I mean, if it worked so well, why isn't it selling like hotcakes?
Kennedy: Well, it is now. We can't answer our phone now. But then it was somebody's special project. People say this is actually worth paying attention to and hanging on.
Smith: OK. You've created an organization called the National Network for Safe Communities. This is what you're using now to nationalize and to spread these ideas everywhere.
Kennedy: Yep. The National Network for Safe Communities, and we welcome your visits, nnscommunties.org. Go there. The how-to guides, the research, the evaluations, the best practices, the innovations from the field, it's all there. And we have something north of 70 jurisdictions involved right now. These are all cities that are doing the work. These are not people who are enthusiastic, the folks who are actually doing the gang work and the drug market work, and some even newer things that are coming along.
And there is a kind of tipping moment, we think, happening nationally, in which all the history, all the facts on the ground, all the cities that have done this are finally reaching the point where people look at that, and they say, "OK, this is real. And it's weird, it's inside out. You're going to sit bad guys down and talk to them. The communities aren't all living off drug money. The cops are willing to say that when they arrest all the men in the neighborhood they're doing the neighborhood damage."
All this stuff that not all that long ago seemed tremendously implausible, if I can be polite about it, is suddenly very, very plausible and concrete. And the demand is such that those of us help cities do this work can't keep up.
Smith: I want to finish this part of our conversation by asking this about you. "The New Yorker" profiled you not long ago, and said that your lack of formal schooling as a criminologist is part of what has qualified you for this work in a funny way in order to allow you to practice what your family has called "ruthless common sense."
Stepping back, these ideas all sound... I wouldn't say obvious, but they seem like common sense. Why have they been hiding in plain sight for so long?
Kennedy: I think they're common sense once you're far enough beyond our preconceptions and our habits of mind to see them. And I don't actually believe for a moment that lack of formal schooling was an aid here. What I think was I was lucky, so a lot of people, a huge number of people, gave of themselves and experience to help me see what they knew.
And I think, especially among academics, the ability to shut up and listen is neither that common nor particularly highly valued. And I do think that partly just by disposition, but partly because of my sort of training as a journalist that going and listening to people turned out to be the key here.
Smith:Let's listen to a few questions from the audience, and I actually want to start with Alyssa Banks, who works with youth violence, a youth violence program in Minneapolis, and wanted to just give us a little sort of update on what's happening over in that city.
Alyssa Banks: Hi. Well, thank you so much for inviting us all, and I'm so pleased to have been able to have the opportunity to attend this event. I think that you shared a lot of really inspiring insights on this work that's given me a lot of food for thought.
As you may be aware of, the city of Minneapolis has really taken a public health approach to preventing youth violence, and the era between 2003 to 2006 we had a rise in homicides that happened in our city, and prior to that we had been implementing and the community groups have been implementing a different number of strategies to address youth violence.
But at that time period we really started to realize that we needed to take a different approach much like you had talked about in your presentation about a different strategy to traditional policing methods, which is why our city leadership really stepped up and said, "There must be some other types of strategies that we can use."
And can you talk a little bit about the public health approach, because I know that that is a growing area of work? I know you talked a lot about intervening within gangs, and looking at sort of addressing the problem with gang members as well as attacking the problems with crime and with drugs. But can you talk about the public health approach? Because I think that's really innovative and the essence of what Ceasefire is trying to do.
Kennedy: So when people talk about public health approaches they can mean a bunch of different things, so I'm not in a position to comment in detail about what Minneapolis is doing right now. But let me take a step back from that and say something that I wish weren't true, but I think really needs emphasizing, because communities need respite here.
And that is that there's no record, sad to say, of anything that is fundamentally focused on what we might think of as prevention working here. And that's partly because the environment that prevention's trying to act in is itself driving the problem.
So when you have an open-air drug market in a neighborhood, then a few of the young men in that community are going to go to the corners. It doesn't take many to keep the drug market going, and then you have a neighborhood under siege.
When you've got gangs and gun violence, you're going to have young men that feel like they need somebody to watch their back, and they need a gun to keep themselves safe. And objectively, I'm not going to argue with them. It's not the right strategy, but they're not wrong.
And when you have those things going on, then the record is that what we think of as prevention cannot turn the tide. We need to do something about those core drivers. So drug markets and gangs are not just the outcome of troubles in neighborhoods. They are a cause of trouble in neighborhoods.
And the record now shows that when you can intervene in these very precise ways and eliminate or dramatically reduce those problems, then the core community work to which so many of us are committed actually has a chance to operate.
Smith: The community work, for example, in alleviating poverty and providing better public health, and those kinds of things.
Kennedy: Exactly. So there's the long honorable menu of concerns about root causes, and those root causes themselves, and as the questioner, or the commenter said, there are a number of innovative frameworks that are trying to bring different perspectives, and epidemiology and public health is one of those, to try and bolster our toolkit in these areas.
But what is true so far is that, alone, they don't work. And the same thing is true of the other side. So neither more prevention or more law enforcement is going to work. We need to do this differently.
James Densley: I'm Dr. James Densley from Metropolitan State University. I had a question. I've been studying gangs for the last four years in London, England. And in the aftermath of the London riots, there was a lot of talk about an all out war on gangs. I was curious. That, to me, sounds like nonsense. But I'm curious how this plays out looking at how we might have an intervention in a place where the gang situation emerging, chaotic and maybe not as organized as it might be in Boston.
And the second point of this is, in the current economy, how can we provide the opportunities to gang members so that they are deterred from becoming drug dealers if the primary driving for entering the drug market is financial?
Kennedy: We're doing work in the U.K.. One of the facts here is that this whole way of thinking has been implemented in Glasgow which, as you well know, is a city so dangerous that it's almost as dangerous as one of our safer cities. But by European and U.K. standards, it's right at the top of the heap.
It's a knife culture. It's not a gun culture. So again, you probably know this, but Glasgow turns out to be the world center for facial reconstructive surgery which is...
Smith: A dubious honor.
Kennedy: A dubious honor. Also my home town, I'll have you know. But it's worked like a charm there and the folks behind that out of the violence prevention unit that began in Strathclyde and is now Scotland wide recognized that the differences don't matter. This is what turns out to be true, that you can go to city to city and people will say, "Our gangs are different. They're more organized. They're less organized. They're Asian. They're Hispanic. They're black."
In the U.K., it's been, "We don't have American gangs. We don't have the guns." It turns out none of that signifies because underneath that, you have these core commonalities. It is the groups, whatever we call them, whether they're gangs or what they're level of hierarchy is just turns out to be immaterial, it's groups. It's group dynamics. It's not very many groups. It's not very many people.
The vendettas and the beefs between the groups are not economic. Almost always they're honor code and other kind of social frictions which means the drug stuff is also immaterial. You find the same kind of alienation between law enforcement and the community. The details may be different, but the gulf is always there.
You find that the guys on the street, when you get them behind closed doors, all tell you they want out. But somebody is actually trying to kill them. "What are you going to do for me?" All of that turns out to be the next best thing to universal.
And so, they kicked this off in Glasgow about five years ago. The evaluations are stellar. They're seeing huge community level decreases in this violent crime. And as for this kind of spasmodic response about total war on gangs, it's worked so well for us, why wouldn't they do it?
Kennedy: The hope is actually that we can help them not make the same stupid mistakes we've made for a couple of generations here.
Smith: What about the other point which is that you can intervene, you can tell them to stop shooting, stop selling openly, but the problem remains, unemployment, high unemployment and not many prospects?
Kennedy: That's true, and it is another way in which we make people angry. But you don't' have to fix that to stop the killing. That's just a fact. You don't have to. People get outraged by that because that sounds as if the community of practice of which I am part is saying, "That doesn't matter." And that is not what we mean.
But if you think that everybody has to have a job to not shoot people, that means you are hostage to the economy and their ability to work, and their willingness to work and our ability to get them all to work. And just to say it again, our record of being successful in all of those dimensions is nonexistent.
The opposite of shooting is not working. The opposite of shooting is not shooting. And even in what we properly regard as terribly damaged and distressed communities, huge numbers of people aren't working and almost nobody shots anybody. And all we need to do is to convert the tiny, tiny sub-population that might shoot you to not shooting you and that community gets to live again.
Luke Salindy: Hi. I'm Luke Salindy from Minneapolis and I just had a question. Again I hate to be redundant, but it's also international in nature. Obviously, in the United States and in England, the police do have kind of the monopoly of violence where they do have control, more or less, over the areas.
I was wondering if you had any ideas about what could happen on some of the border towns in Mexico like Juarez where the central problem seems to be that the police really, even if they wanted to exert that level of violence on the drug lords and whatnot, that they don't have that leverage essentially. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on that level of violence.
Kennedy: So let me share, not my thoughts, but somebody else's thoughts. So one of my good friends and colleagues is a UCLA professor named Mark Kleiman who's written a brilliant books that explores a lot of these same ideas. It's called "When Brute Force Fails" and it is very, very good.
He's come up with a notion that says it is within the power of the United States to effectively shut down the cartel killing in Mexico. And it goes like this. If you go to the DEA and say to them, "Do you know to whom the cartels are selling on our side of the border? Who are the middle people? Where are the drugs going? How are they moving out into the rest of the country?" They will say, "Yes." They do know. They can't necessarily fix it all, but do they know? Yes.
So Mark's idea is that you track Mexican violence by cartel. And you talk to the Mexican authorities and they say, "Yes. We can do this. With reasonable specificity, we can assign bodies to the cartels."
And so, you create a list of the cartels by descending order of violence, most violent at the top. And whatever cartel is at the top, the American authorities stop people from buying from them. And just as we can focus on one gang and make their lives miserable, the DEA says, "Yes."
And again, it wouldn't mean that you have to stop them from buying from anybody. You just don't let them source this cartel. The price to the cartels for being the most violent is that they go broke. And once people understand that, then you have a race to the bottom of which is the most violent cartel. And if they are actually more interested in making money than they are in everything else, then it would work.
This is the kind of idea that makes everybody fall down laughing and then it turns out when you go to the Mexican authorities, they've already thought about this and they think it's very plausible.
Suzie Brian: Suzie Brian from St. Paul. I understand you specialize at community and large group level interventions which are fantastic. Have you had any experience or have you interacted with or do you know anything about the one to interveners?
Kennedy: I do. I think what you're asking about is... So my work, the stuff that I began in Boston coined this Operation Cease Fire name. The world has become horribly confused now because a group out of Chicago adopted that name. They called themselves Chicago Cease Fire. They do something very different.
A part of the Boston portfolio was street outreach workers. A lot of them ex-offenders, not all of them, but many of them. They worked the neighborhoods. They try to mediate disputes. They try to get folks off the corners, into programs. That kind of thing.
The record on this is that it doesn't work. It doesn't work by itself. So in partnership with some of these ideas, street outreach can be crucial. And in a lot of the work that I've been part of, they've been a central element. But both the field and the social science record says that by itself not only does it not work, but it can make things worse.
So there's an issue of "Criminology and Public Policy," which is one of our top criminology journals, that in the upcoming November issue will have a review of the evaluation evidence on this approach. And what it says is, in all the published evaluations, that kind of work alone has not reduced violence and in a substantial subset of the studies, it's actually made violence worse.
And that seems very strange, but it's not. You go to a gang and say, "I'm going to help you. I'm going to help you because you're a gang. I am the conduit to services and safety. The way you get my help is you are in a gang." Then you keep that gang going. What the specialists say is that you foster gang cohesion.
And it's also a feature of the way Chicago Cease Fire works, not all outreach workers, but Chicago Cease Fire doesn't work with the police by design as a matter of principle. And part of the problem in these neighborhoods as we've been talking about is this profound distrust of and alienation from the police.
What you actually want is a different kind of engagement, different behavior by the police. You don't want to tell the streets, "We don't trust them either," because then you foster this honor code and vendetta dynamics that come out of it.
Smith: David Kennedy, thank you very much.
Kennedy: Thank you.
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