Cincinnati's political leaders hope it's a case of better late than never when it comes to trying to duplicate the success locally of a plan used in Boston and more than a dozen other cities nationwide to significantly reduce gun violence and crime.
At the urging of community activists, university researchers and local physicians, Cincinnati City Council is considering implementing a crime-fighting strategy developed by David Kennedy, a professor who helped create the Boston Gun Project in the mid-1990s. Sometimes referred to as "the Boston Miracle," the plan was rolled out in response to a youth homicide epidemic there and is credited with causing a nearly 50 percent drop in gang-related violence within a few months.
This isn't the first time that local groups have wanted to try the plan here.
In 2002, members of Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) — a group assembled by then-Mayor Charlie Luken after the April 2001 riots to help improve police-community relations — traveled to Boston to talk to people who made the strategy work there. They returned to Cincinnati with high hopes, but few aspects of the program were implemented beyond offering mentoring to first-time offenders and at-home visits by probation officers.
Sources at City Hall and the Cincinnati Police Department say the previous effort at enacting the Boston plan here failed partly because of personality conflicts that some police supervisors and elected officials had with CAN leaders, especially the Rev. Damon Lynch III, an outspoken civil rights leader whose fiery rhetoric often placed him at odds with Luken and the police union.
Flash-forward to the present.
Luken and Lynch have left the political stage, and the police union has a new president. With Cincinnati experiencing a record-breaking 89 homicides in 2006 and the number of killings and shootings consistently on the rise over the past few years, weary officials and residents are more willing to try something new.
Grip of 'street culture'
Kennedy's plan, now known as Operation Ceasefire, involves singling out a city's most violent offenders — usually 50 people or less — for aggressive policing and letting them know their every move is being closely watched, while also engaging their less violent associates in a direct dialogue to offer them alternatives to their current lifestyle.
The combination of keeping constant pressure on gang or drug crew leaders while having people like clergy and neighborhood groups take an active interest in lower-tier gang members typically causes a shift in the group dynamic that's proven effective in breaking the strong grip of what Kennedy calls "street culture" has on the lives of many young urban males, primarily African Americans.
Other cities that have employed the strategy, to varying degrees, include Baltimore, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Kennedy, director of the Center on Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says the strategy is relatively simple but isn't easy.
"What it takes to move the mountain on this is people of passion and dedication," Kennedy says. "Homicides can be addressed. This is not something totally out of our control."
Upon beginning his research about two decades ago, Kennedy initially was interested in social problems affecting inner-city neighborhoods. The more he examined the issue, however, the more he realized that crime was a driving factor.
"When I started this, it was official dogma in police departments that there was nothing you could do about homicides," Kennedy says.
Most killings, police thought, were unpredictable, fueled by passion and impulse. "This turns out to be absolutely wrong," he says.
Kennedy's research indicated that in troubled neighborhoods typically no more than 5 percent of young males are actually involved in criminal activity. The number of "impact players," people who actually drive the activity and who others view as leaders, is even fewer.
In Chicago, for example, Kennedy's research found there were about 700 people who were repeat offenders involved in crime but only about 50 who were "making things happen," he says.
Many of the lower-tier offenders have grown tired of the violence around them but don't see a path out of the situation, Kennedy says. More importantly, people involved in crime behave differently together than they do separately, bound by a code based on a skewed view of respect and honor where a person must retaliate against any slights, real or perceived, or be seen as weak.
"Together on the street, they hold each other to a street culture," he says. "This street culture is carried by little groups."
Although many observers often think that shootings and homicides are due to turf battles among drug dealers, that's generally not accurate. "They are not killing each other over business," Kennedy says.
Frequently, it's due to retaliation for breaking the street code or what Kennedy refers to as "social friction." In San Francisco, long-festering violence between two drug crews — West Mob and Big Block — was triggered years ago by a dispute about who would perform next at a street concert, and it escalated from there. "Now it's a vendetta," he says. "Now it's Hatfield and McCoy."
'A theory of action'
To break that cycle, community groups, police and social service agencies must work in unison. The approach uses direct, sustained engagement with street gangs and drug crews involving face-to-face meetings and an explicit focus on curbing violence. Offenders are offered positive options to leave their violent lifestyles but told they'll face stepped-up monitoring and enforcement if they don't change their ways.
"It basically says, 'We'll help you, but we'll stop you if you make us. We're not going away,' " Kennedy says.
Pressuring and isolating key players is crucial. "If the criminals unionized and fought back, what works wouldn't work," he says. "But they don't."
Officials are taking notice. Last month, Kennedy held a four-hour seminar in Columbus with law enforcement agencies from around the state. Among those in attendance were Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr., city council members and Hamilton County commissioners.
"As a community, we've come to the point that we realize we have a problem," City Councilman David Crowley says. "It's so huge, so big and so devastating that we have to try something new."
Dr. Victor Garcia, trauma service director for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, is one of the plan's strongest supporters. In recent years, patients being admitted for gunshot wounds have increased while their median age has gotten younger. The problem has grown to epidemic levels, he adds.
"I have a unique appetite for evidence-based approaches," Garcia says. "This seems to work elsewhere."
Councilman Cecil Thomas, a retired police officer, says, "It's important when we look at violent crime that we look at it from all aspects so we deal with it in a holistic fashion. ... It's critical to come together like this to really impact the problem."
In this year's budget, city council has allocated $1 million for a youth violence reduction program that will be overseen by the Police Community Partnering Center and $1 million for youth training and employment. Council is reviewing Kennedy's plan and is likely to approve it later this year at an estimated cost of about $300,000.
Kennedy acknowledges the plan might sound touchy-feely, but the reality is different.
"This isn't so much a theory of causation, this is a theory of action," Kennedy says. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if a man is carrying a gun because he was unloved as a child or there's no legitimate employment in his community. ... This is an effective intervention." ©