The sharp decline in Boston’s youth homicide rate in the late 1990s has been christened “The Boston Miracle.’’ But don’t call it that in front of David M. Kennedy.
“I always hated that name. It wasn’t a miracle, it was hard damned work,’’ Kennedy, who spearheaded the Ceasefire project in the mid-1990s, notes in his book “Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.’’
Violent crime began soaring in urban areas in the 1980s, fueled by a national crack epidemic. A decade later street shootings had become commonplace in many American cities. “Don’t Shoot’’ chronicles Kennedy’s work with law enforcement officials and community leaders beginning in the 1990s in Boston and then spreading to other cities and states, all the while homing in on gangs as a principal cause of urban killings.
Kennedy, who grew up outside 1960s Detroit, attended Swathmore College and later found himself working as a writer of case studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. There he became involved with the school’s program in criminal justice policy and management and began learning firsthand through his street research about urban poverty and violence.
Later he would become a key part of a Kennedy School team organized to seek practical solutions to stem the mounting numbers of victims. Their work contributed to the creation of the “Boston Gun Project’’ in January 1995, which evolved into “Operation Ceasefire.’’ The idea was to focus on a relatively small group of the city’s most violent offenders - all tied to gangs, with most of the killings resulting from petty feuds among the groups. It essentially involved instituting a zero-tolerance policy on crime - making arrests for even minor violations, such as carrying a single bullet or breaking curfew. Police and community workers met gang members and told them the pressure would continue until the shootings stopped. The gangs took heed, and violent crime rates began to drop.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Ceasefire strategy is its reliance on concrete methods and goals. Recognizing that a blanket war on “crime’’ would be vague, inefficient, and probably ineffective, Kennedy and his partners chose instead to focus on gun violence. After all, he notes, it’s not the crimes themselves but the violence around them that causes communities to live in fear. Kennedy writes: “The normal frame said, don’t be in gangs, don’t commit crimes, don’t sell drugs, don’t carry weapons, don’t violate your probation, don’t drink and drug. . . . This cut to the chase: Don’t hurt people.’’
While Kennedy is clearly at the center of the book, “Don’t Shoot’’ is less a memoir than a series of case studies, written in clear, conversational, if unadorned, first-person. Its most receptive audience will probably be those who work in law enforcement or with inner-city kids. Now a professor at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control, Kennedy doesn’t shy away from harsh truths and uncomfortable subjects like race relations, and some conclusions will not sit well with everyone. He argues, for instance, that the drug war can’t be won and that virtually all of law enforcement knows it.
To date, the Ceasefire policy has been implemented in more than 70 cities. “Don’t Shoot’’ tracks its successes and failures from Minneapolis to Baltimore, Winston-Salem, N.C., to Cincinnati. As the initiative grew, in Kennedy’s telling, bureaucratic barriers in nearly every city ultimately proved to be the program’s biggest challenge. In the early 2000s, Ceasefire programs that had been in place for years began to crumble under the weight of red tape, political infighting, and the unwillingness of departments to cooperate with one another.
In Boston, for instance - whose politics Kennedy venomously describes as “a poisonous atmosphere’’ - Ceasefire was virtually eliminated by 2000. (Future efforts labeled Ceasefire were similar in name but not in strategy, according to Kennedy.) Gun violence crept up, and in 2005, coinciding with the anniversary of the Boston Gun Project’s implementation, the city’s homicides reached a 10-year high.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis is reinstating the program, and, with the exception of a spike in crime last year, homicide rates have been declining since 2006.
Still, as the behind-the-scenes obstacles echo throughout “Don’t Shoot,’’ they form a collective motif that is so frustrating even on paper alone that one thing quickly becomes clear - in the face of such opposition, that Kennedy and his colleagues were able to get the Ceasefire program off the ground in the first place, let alone achieve such positive results, is the real miracle.
Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at email@example.com.