Fighting Inner-City Crime

When, and how, citizens should take action is a pressing question.

David Kennedy.
Author David Kennedy

Photograph by Sibylle von Ulmenstein.

Last year, residents in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood asked for my advice about a local gang problem. Their leader and block club president, Marla McCoy—a teacher’s aide, homeowner, and mother of three—noticed that drug dealing in the local park was starting up after a yearlong hiatus. Her opponent, an18-year-old upstart named Filly, had orchestrated a successful and violent coup d’etat. He controlled a $2,000 per week criminal enterprise based in the park.

When Marla called to ask, “When do I call the police?” I understood their hidden agenda. Few among her neighbors expected the police to do much. And so the group wondered whether they should engage in street diplomacy themselves—and only then notify the police of their efforts. They wanted Marla to ask Filly not to sell drugs in the park after 3 p.m., when kids walked home from school. Given that the gang was armed and she was not, and police were not responding, Marla felt this was the best possible outcome. A few of her neighbors brazenly called for Marla to impose a “tax” on the thugs’ weekly receipts: The money could be used for kids’ activities in the park.

For most Americans, a dangerous gang boss would produce an instantaneous 911 call rather than a series of reflective dialogues and creative regulatory schemes. But as residents of a predominantly black, inner city, low-income neighborhood, Marla’s neighbors were used to neglectful police and inadequate law enforcement service. Negotiating with police was as much an everyday activity as dealing with the local gang.

I had known Marla’s mother, the late Shauna McCoy, herself a powerful neighborhood leader. Marla wondered what her mother might have done with Filly—or, for that matter, her uncle and grandfather, both of whom had kept the peace in Washington Park in the mid-20th century. They, too, negotiated with unruly gamblers, pimps, “policy” kings, and other underworld figures. They, too, called police sparingly—and saw police patrols in their area rarely. They, too, imposed unofficial taxes on black market entrepreneurs in their ’hood.

Marla might have done better to call David Kennedy, the author of a memoir about fighting crime and violence in America’s inner cities. Don’t Shoot is Kennedy’s journey into the bizarre and often counterintuitive world of criminal justice policy. Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is best known for helping to bring about the so-called “Boston Miracle.” In1990, youth homicide in Boston had reached historic heights and trust between cops and minority residents was at a nadir. Kennedy’s team mined the data to find that a small, hard-core group of offenders were committing the vast majority of Boston’s violent crime. They brought this “moneyball” approach to police and community leaders, and soon they were reaching out to the perpetrators in open town hall meetings. They adopted a carrot-and-stick approach: one more homicide and the police will make nightly arrests, confiscate drugs, call in the Fed, and do whatever else it might take to bring down profits and make life miserable. No killings and you’ll get services, housing subsidies, and help finding jobs.

For many reasons, this outreach wasn’t easy. Police had to publicly admit their failures, black community leaders had to back white police, and both had to be seen consorting with criminals in the interest of public safety. The results were hard to argue with. Youth homicide rates went down to zero in 1996, and the overall homicide rate dropped by 50 percent by the end of the decade.

The recipe was rooted in a simple theory of deterrence: Criminals are rational and susceptible to group-think. (Most troublemakers run with gangs due to peer pressure.) They will listen to cops if the warnings are delivered respectfully. For their part, cops don’t need high-tech weapons and costly surveillance operations. If they talk to criminals directly, enforce the law when people break it, and rely on judges who actually penalize those violating probation, criminals will fall in line.

After the Boston results came in, Kennedy was deluged with calls from mayors and police chiefs in other cities. Kennedy is not shy about championing his efforts. The pages of Don’t Shoot are filled with self-congratulatory pronouncements, even though the results of his efforts are more mixed than the Boston triumph suggests. In some cities (Minneapolis), his program reduces crime. In others (Baltimore), the team can’t even start the process because of turf-battles and in-fighting—among law enforcement, not the gangs! And Kennedy acknowledges that his approach doesn’t eradicate drug problems. “The markets would reset themselves,” he writes, “the dope was going to go somewhere. … But could we get rid of the violence?”

Kennedy’s Operation Ceasefire program speaks to a real dilemma in American criminal justice policy. How far will we allow citizens to take matters into their own hands before a neighborhood watch turns into a vigilante group? As Marla knows, there is no easy answer. In the suburb where I grew up (Irvine, Calif.), residents will promptly call 911 on behalf of a neighbor, but they would be unlikely to support a local militia that chases suspected perpetrators. New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities rely on the Shomrim—a volunteer police force—to respond to violent crimes, not the NYPD. There have been numerous complaints that the Shomrim physically assault perpetrators before the police arrive. Is this a sign of community strength or mob rule?

Kennedy’s Ceasefire program is not the only one offering unorthodox blends of self-governance and state law enforcement. He gives police the leading role: They and local leaders bring the highest profile criminals to a general neighborhood meeting, where stern warnings are delivered. Citizens then take a backseat to police, who hit the streets and jail violators. The other approach—the brainchild of Gary Slutkin, a Chicago health practitioner, and also known as “CeaseFire”—puts citizens at the forefront. The strategy is to find citizens resolving conflicts before violence escalates, and typically before the police arrive. In fact, the CeaseFire staff—self-designated “violence interrupters”—takes pride in refusing to cooperate with law enforcement. Often ex-criminals, gang members, and others with direct experience in the underworld, they fear a loss of street cred, which could hamper their diplomacy as well as their personal safety. The program has been chronicled in a high-profile documentary film The Interrupters, directed by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz.

With states around the country experiencing budget shortfalls and cities laying off cops, innovation in policing is going to be necessary. Whatever the results of the two programs—and there are few scientific evaluations of their work—they certainly both succeed in galvanizing local action. Whether citizens and cops are working together to scold local thugs, or conflict mediators are putting out fires, more talking and doing are never unwelcome. In fact, research shows that increasing collective action among neighbors is the best way to reduce crime—better than eliminating poverty, providing youth jobs, cleaning up broken windows, good though all of these things are for a community.

At the end of the day, Kennedy’s program will offer more to a disenfranchised community besieged with crime. I say this having watched for two decades as poor residents (in New York and Chicago) enforced the law when police weren’t around or refused to patrol. After a while, cops started to treat them as vigilantes, and relations with the local police force eroded further. We have done a lot in this country to mend police-community relations, particularly among black and Latino populations. It took us 30 years to build up trust and legitimacy. Police need to be involved at some level, and the earlier the better. The crime problem calls for follow-up efforts, too, the more sustained the better. I am continually struck by the failure to build on the truces, peace treaties, and drops in crime that Kennedy, Slutkin, and Marla bring about. That’s when neighborhoods can make the best use of social services, economic opportunities, school improvements. At the moment, government has no resources for such public works, and philanthropy is totally blind to criminal justice and public safety initiatives. Less than 1 percent of all charitable giving goes toward securing American communities

But communities need to address violence right way. The Marla McCoys of the world often can’t wait for police to do their job. Sometimes they have no choice but to deal with violent offenders directly. That will be more, not less, true as the recession deepens, unemployment rises, and citizen unrest grows. I responded to Marla’s query about her mother’s crime-fighting strategy by relaying another statistic. Between 1996 and 2003, I saw her mother put out fires without the police 76 percent of the time. To keep the parks safe, Marla’s neighbors decided they had little choice but to work out a truce with their gang. They would call police after the violence subsided. As of this writing, Filly has expanded his successful drug dealing operation and earns about $5,000 per week. But there hasn’t been a public shooting or fatality in Marla’s neighborhood since she began negotiating with the gang boss. Kids use the park during the day; drug traffickers sell there at night. Rogue justice or American democracy at work? It’s getting hard to tell the difference.