David Kennedy: 'Don't Shoot:' A Journey To End Gang Violence Criminologist David M. Kennedy's strategy for reducing gang violence has dramatically reduced youth homicide rates nationwide. In his new memoir, Don't Shoot, Kennedy outlines how community meetings and interventions have worked to curb youth violence in more than 70 cities.

Interrupting Violence With The Message 'Don't Shoot'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, David Kennedy, has spent more than 20 years working to curb violence and shut down drug markets in inner-city neighborhoods. Though he's now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, Kennedy is largely self-taught, having spent countless hours with cops, prosecutors, parole officers, gang members, drug dealers, crime victims and community leaders.

Kennedy was a key architect of a crime-fighting strategy that dramatically cut homicide rates in Boston and has been adopted in other cities. And he's developed techniques that have effectively closed drug markets in dozens of communities across the country. Kennedy believes the high rates of incarceration in America have a debilitating effect on poor African-American neighborhoods, and his approach relies more on getting criminals to alter their behavior than locking them up.

Kennedy describes his strategies and tells his story in a new book called "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


David Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: You weren't trained as a criminologist. You went to college and then, as you tell the story in the book, were hooked up with a professor at the Kennedy School in Cambridge named Mark Moore, got interested in developing new models of policing. And there was a trip that you made, research trip to South Central Los Angeles, which seems to have been a formative experience. What did you see that was - so moved you?

KENNEDY: I saw Nickerson Gardens. So this was late 1985. Crack was a year or so old in L.A. at that point. They called it rock. I had read about it in the papers. I had certainly never seen any of this face-to-face. It was like watching time-lapse photography of the end of the world.

There were drug crews on the corner. There were crack monsters and heroin addicts wandering around. There was the first open-air drug market I ever saw, which varied a little bit from place but always have the characteristic that idiot white folks in expensive cars and pickup trucks and stuff drive in from outside the community and roll their windows down, and the black kids run up and spit crack into their hands and drop it into the car, and the white guys turn around and drive away while in the neighborhood the black mothers and grandmothers are hiding in their apartments, and the kids are watching the cops, and the cops are watching the kids.

It was fantastically, almost-impossibly-to-take-in awful.

DAVIES: In the book, before we get into some of the techniques that you helped to develop some of these issues, you describe the perspectives of three communities who live together in these neighborhoods, these largely black, poor neighborhoods and how they perceive and misperceive one another. And I'd like to just have you go through and summarize those perspectives, beginning with the law enforcement, the cops, the prosecutors.

KENNEDY: We have two worlds in the United States. You know, there's the world of the long, national crime decline that everybody's celebrating, and there's the world that I've been working in for 25 years now, which is a little bit better than it was in 1985 but still, just to say it again, almost inconceivably awful in terms of many of its dimensions.

And nobody likes to say this stuff out loud because it's impolitic, but the facts are the facts. And the facts are that you get this kind of drug activity and violence only in historically distressed, minority neighborhoods. And it is far worse in poor, distressed African-American neighborhoods than it is anywhere else.

So these are neighborhoods where one in 200 young black men get murdered every year. This is where the worst open-air drug stuff is: It's all concentrated. And quite naturally, law enforcement pays an awful lot of attention to those neighborhoods. And over the generations that this has been going on, they have come to a conclusion. And the fundamental conclusion is: that community is corrupt; the guys on the corner are sociopaths, they don't care if they live or if they die; their parents are corrupt or they would be keeping them off the corners.

There's no core left. There's no moral standing left. There's no heart left. And the shorthand that you get from cops when you talk about these communities, is that they look at you, and they say there is no community. There's no community left. And that's what they really think.

DAVIES: All right, let's go to the second group you describe, which is the community that shares this turf with the drug dealers and the police, that is to say, the largely law-abiding community.

KENNEDY: So that's - when we say the community, that's what we mean. We mean the good people in these neighborhoods. They look at the cops, and they think two things. So, the mild version is they're not helping - and they won't, and they never have, and we've given up on them.

The stronger version is dominant in the public discourse in those neighborhoods, and many, many people believe it. And it is that law enforcement, and especially the police, are part of a deliberate, racist conspiracy by the outside, acted out through law enforcement, to do damage to the community. And that what's going on is not just happening because the cops can't stop it, it is happening because cops want it, are behind it and are often active racial conspirators in doing deliberate damage, and that the drugs could not be there if the cops didn't allow it. That the drugs probably are there because the cops are part of bringing them in. That - as many people had heard, and most white folks just dismiss it - that crack was invented by the CIA and imported into the neighborhoods. And that at root, all of this - the drug enforcement, the gang enforcement, the presence of law enforcement, all the black men getting arrested - is a continuation of America's historical attack on black communities, going back to the founding of the nation, in which the majority oppressed the minority under color of law.

DAVIES: It's interesting, as you write, you don't buy this. You agree with the cops, that this is not what's happening, that they're not primarily motivated by racial animus, but it's not crazy for people in the community to see it that way.

KENNEDY: It is both of those terrible things. It is not true, and it is, unfortunately, extraordinarily plausible.

DAVIES: All right, let's go to the third community, which you call the community of the streets. The criminals, right?

KENNEDY: Right. In these communities, the violence, the gun play, the public, chaotic drug activity, all of that is driven by what turns out to be a fantastically small population. What matters is that these offenders are in the community in groups. They are in gangs, they are in drug crews, they are in little neighborhood sets. They are in little, usually, pretty chaotic groups. Those groups drive the action to a shocking degree.

We've done work, recently, in Cincinnati, where our research shows about 60 groups with about 1,500 people in them, representing less than half a percentage point of the city's population are associated with 75 percent of all of Cincinnati's killings. And no matter where you go, that's the fact. You get that kind of concentration.

So the world of the streets is a world of those groups. And they think two very important things. They think their community doesn't care about what they're doing, and they think the cops hate them personally, and that the attention they get from the cops is the result of personal, racial animosity.

DAVIES: And one of the other interesting insights is that a lot of these people who carry guns and get involved in shootings of revenge or retaliation because of an offense involving disrespect or romantic jealousy, a lot of them are themselves plagued by fear. They carry guns because they hate - because they feel they have to, but they don't like this.

KENNEDY: That's right. The national homicide rate is sinking down as criminologists track it, to about four per 100,000. So every year, four people are killed out of 100,000 in the population.

In gang circles in many of our cities - so if you are in these gangs, drug crews, neighborhood sets - if you are in what turns out to be about the five percent of the young men in the hottest neighborhoods that are in these groups, our research and math shows that your homicide rate in those groups can reach 3,000 per 100,000 every year.

It is incredibly dangerous. And if you talk to these guys, especially behind closed doors, what they say is: I'm terrified. I've been shot. I've been knifed. Half my friends are dead. My older brother's dead. There are guys out there, they're beefing with my guy in my crew, and that means they're beefing with me, and they are trying to shoot me.

And they will tell you three or four different stories of something recent where they got shot at. I mean, when I first started talking to gang members about this in Boston, I didn't get this. And one of my standard questions to Boston gang members was, have you ever been shot at.

And they had a kind of Eskimo's view of snow about this. And they would say to me, well, what do you mean exactly? You know, what if I was just with my friends, and their enemies were shooting at them? You know, they weren't really shooting at me, but I was there, and I got grazed. Does that count?

And they had that kind of nuanced parsing of what it meant to be shot at. That was their everyday world.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kennedy. That was from his book "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Kennedy. He is a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He's been working for more than 20 years on street violence in America with police departments and others. His new book is "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America."

So you had these communities in many cities, and what you and others were able to do in Boston has been referred to by many as the Boston miracle, a dramatic reduction in homicide rates among young, violent people. And I commend to the audience, the description in the book. It's long. It's detailed. You see how you get there. And we can't go through all this here. Tell us what the approach was.

KENNEDY: There was actually not that much to it. The hard part is understanding why what I'm about to say makes sense and works. But once you get through all of that, the thing itself is pretty simple. So there are not that many gangs and drug crews and such driving the violence in the city. They're easy to identify.

When you look at them and the people in them, the gang members and drug dealers and such are such active offenders, that every crew has somebody on probation and parole. So you can work with probation and parole to bring those folks into a meeting. And in that meeting, you look at them, you say this is not a sting, you're going home. This is nothing personal. You are here as a representative of your group. Please take what you're about to hear back to your group.

And they then hear three things. They hear people they respect from the neighborhood - mothers, grandmothers, survivors of murdered children, the right kind of ministers, older, wiser gangsters - say to them you are doing enormous damage in the community, and the community needs you to stop. Your community cares about you, but the violence has to stop.

They hear social service providers say we want to help you, and here's a phone number. You call it, tell your fellow gang members to call it. We will do everything we can to help you: GED, job training, job placement, emergency assistance, drug treatment. We'll do what we can.

And they hear law enforcement say we want you to listen to these other folks. We don't want to arrest you. We don't want to lock you up. We certainly don't want to go to your mother and say you've been killed. Take the help. Listen to your community.

But this is not a negotiation, and when you leave this room, we will be doing two things. We will be going to the most violent group in the city and focusing all our law enforcement attention on it, and we will win that struggle, and that gang will lose it. And whatever gang in the city puts the next body on the ground, we will go there, and we will do the same thing.

And so if you and your crew want that kind of attention, kill somebody. And in city after city - Boston was the first, but what we see is - you may have to do it once or twice. You answer the service calls, you do the law enforcement, but as soon as the streets believe that that's what's going to happen, they change.

DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, the declines were truly dramatic.

KENNEDY: Yeah, they were. We were shocked by them.

DAVIES: And I thought I would have you read a section of the book here, when this thing was really moving. It's on Page 72. Would you just pick that up for us?

KENNEDY: Sure. So this picks up about a year after Ceasefire first took hold in the city. So the first meetings with gang members ever anywhere were in May of 1996 in Boston. We had two meetings. We had two crackdowns. We helped the people who called the service line. We kept our promises, and by actually the summer of 1996, just a couple of months after this began, the streets had quieted down dramatically, and they kept getting better.

And we began to see some really strange stuff going on that nobody could possibly have imagined, and one of them was what follows.

In the summer of 1997, almost unbelievably, gang members came to the Boston Gun Project Working Group through the Department of Youth Services to complain about a new gang that had sprung up in Codman Square. Young and wild, the new Buckshot Crew was throwing its weight around, advertising its guns and graffiti, shooting the place up.

They're going to ruin it for everybody. You have to do something, the other gang told our team. We had a quick forum - that's what we called these face-to-face meetings. We had a quick forum with the Buckshot Crew, which they ignored. So Gary French(ph), the lieutenant in charge of the gang unit, sicced undercover officers on them and took the whole crew off on drug buys and stateside prosecutions.

The gang members that had come to us rode surveillance with the Youth Violence Strike Force to finger the Buckshot Crew. It was knife-edge, but it was powerful. You could feel the primal forces at work, wheeling together, converging, focusing, reaching straight into the heart of what everybody had seen as an impossible situation and just changing it.

Law, police, prosecutors, the DEA, the Justice Department, Tracy Litthcut's gang outreach workers out on the street, probation and parole out on the streets, faith communities, communities themselves, the gangs themselves, truth, the power of the word, what had been separate was synced, had found a groove and a rhythm, had an almost palpable pulse. It was amazing.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kennedy. That was from his book "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America."

You know, what you did in Boston, as you explained it, was a matter of basic police research. You found out who this small fraction of the population are who are the - who are committing most of the crimes, and you took this approach of giving them a clear message that it had to stop, and there would be consequences for a particular crew or gang if they didn't.

And it had remarkable effects. Now a lot of people know about a different approach that was adopted by New York City in the 1990s and has, you know, resulted in dramatic and sustained reduction in their homicide rates. This was begun by the Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

It's a much more intensive, aggressive street approach to policing. The phrase you hear is the broken windows theory, the idea that if little things aren't attended to, an atmosphere of lawlessness can prevail. So if cops don't let little things slide, if they do lots of car and pedestrian stops, you get guns, you find parole violators, you get fugitives, you send a message, and you deter crime.

A lot of people think that has worked there in New York. It's a very different approach than what you did in Boston. What's your sense of - what's your opinion of what they did in New York?

KENNEDY: It's a little bit complicated. The fundamental idea behind broken windows is that chaos in communities leads to bad things. And we were pretty stupid to have forgotten that all along. And we now know that that's right. How you address that is something else again.

And there's a massive debate in my world about whether stop and frisk and aggressive policing drove the crime decline in New York. I'm in the camp that thinks that it did. But it comes at a real cost. So there's a profit and a loss side on the public safety balance sheet.

And what we see in many places, is that while you can, as an instrumental matter, bring crime down by occupying the neighborhood and stopping everybody. What you do in the process is lose that neighborhood. They don't like it. They know that the cops can't tell the difference between the five percent of the young men that are really driving things and even the other 95 percent of the young men.

They withdraw. They stop cooperating. You fuel the idea that the police are an occupying, inimical force in the neighborhood. You play into, especially in African-American neighborhoods, these real and toxic communities racial memories about what came before civil rights. And you can make it work in many places, but you can't stop. You can't ever say: We've won, things are good, things are stable, this is a healthy community that takes care of itself because you have driven them into hiding.

GROSS: We'll hear more of David Kennedy's interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Kennedy's new book is called "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with David Kennedy, whose crime-fighting strategies have been used in over 70 cities. His approach to stopping gang violence and shutting down street drug markets is to offer an alternative to arrests and imprisonment by getting criminals to alter their behavior. Candidate now directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His new book is called "Don't Shoot."

DAVIES: I want to talk about another major initiative which you and others undertook which was successful, and that was the effort to attack open-air drug markets. I mean the most widely-known example, the one you write about in the book, is one High Point, North Carolina. Why focus on open-air drug markets as opposed to interdiction, or treatment or drying up demand?

KENNEDY: In the neighborhoods that I'm committed to, the most awful thing is the killing. The Boston stuff turned out to do a pretty good job of controlling the killing. The next most corrosive influence in the neighborhood is what we call overt drug markets, so they can be outside, they can be inside in crack houses and things like that. But any market where a stranger can come into the neighborhood, connect, and drive back out, is an overt drug market. And they bring with them gangs and guns and chaos and hookers and just the worst nastiness that you can possibly imagine.

You can shut that overt market down entirely, and when you do that what you get from a lot of people is well, that's not good enough. The drugs are still there. It's gone underground. It's gone inside. You know, just can't see it so that's not good enough. And my response to that is OK, so we've got these horrific neighborhoods where there are groups of young men shooting each other and people standing out on corners selling drugs to passersby. So we now know how to stop the young men from shooting each other. We know how to get rid of those street corner and crack house markets. So now we have groups of young men doing a lot of stuff and breaking some laws but not really being very dangerous, and we've got people selling drugs but not in any way that you can see. And we've got a name for those neighborhoods. We call them the suburbs.


DAVIES: All right. So let's talk about how you got a handle on the overt drug markets in High Point, North Carolina. You found a police chief there that was prepared to take you in...


DAVIES: ...and try and build the infrastructure you would need. Tell us how it worked.

KENNEDY: In the west end in High Point, which is where we first did this in 2004, when they really did their homework, they found that there were about 16 drug dealers. Everybody else was in the mix and milling around, but they actually were dealing. Most of these dealers aren't violent, and so for them, rather than arresting them we went and talked to them and their other - this is where people start giggling and rolling their eyes. And in the meeting the police department said we don't want to arrest you and put you in prison and ruin your life. Your community wants you to succeed. We have help available for you. The community said to them, in no uncertain terms, you are tearing the guts out of this neighborhood and we need you to stop, but we would like you to survive. The phrase one of my minister friends uses is: we are for you but we are against what you are doing.

And the police department wound up by saying: We have this case ready to go. As long as you stop dealing we will leave it in its jacket. But if you go back to the corner, if you go back to a crack house, we open the folder, we sign the warrant and we walk over and we pick you up. The chance that you're going to get arrested and go to jail the next time you sell drugs in High Point just went to about 100 percent. You are on prior notice. Don't make us do it. And the whole thing dried up and has never come back.

DAVIES: Yeah, just if you would, just describe what the before and after picture of those communities.

KENNEDY: Nobody who has never spent time in an open-air drug market or a market dominated by crack houses can imagine what it's like. The people who live there are locked in their houses, they can't afford to come out. If they leave their stuff gets robbed. One of the first ones I was ever in, a guy, when he drove out he would put his wife under a rug in the foot well of the backseat of his car so that the dealers wouldn't know that the house was empty. There are gunshots. There are condoms on the front lawn. There are needles. There are empty crack vials. The drugs bring the hookers in. The hookers bring the Johns in and they use the hookers to find the drug dealers. There's trash and dirt and loud music. And the girls who walk down the street get harassed and people turn tricks in your shrubbery. And I mean it - people would believe me if I could actually describe this accurately. So that's the before. And you do one of these meetings - and again, like Boston, we didn't believe that it would work as well as it actually does. But you can break the cycle in these neighborhoods, literally overnight, and all that craziness is gone.

The story that captured it all in High Point was that my friend the Reverend Jim Summey, who is a Baptist minister in the neighborhood, ran a summer Bible school. And nobody from the west end would come. And the summer after we shut the west end drug market down he got all these kids from the west end. And he was standing with them one afternoon as they were going home and he was heard one of them say to the other, are you getting a ride home? And the kid said no, I'm walking. Mom says it's OK now.


DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kennedy. His book is "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Kennedy. He is a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He has spent many years working with police departments on fighting violence in American cities. He's written a new book about his experience, "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America."

You know, one of the - one thing I don't see in this book is really anything about gun laws. A lot of people believe that, you know, restrictions on access to guns is the key to stopping violence in cities. What's your view?

KENNEDY: How's that been working for you?


DAVIES: Well, isn't there some research that says it matters if you, you know, I mean New York City has tough gun laws. I mean that's one reason that some people believe that New York City has been effective.

KENNEDY: Well, your city has tough gun laws, but there are lots of guns in New York. And violence in New York hasn't gone away because the guns have gone away. It's gone away because people who 20 years ago would've used those guns don't use them anymore. The fact is, and the book tells the story, the Boston Gun Project began with the idea that not traditional gun control, but an attack on the illicit markets that were you legally providing guns to kids was the high-value option here. That's the one idea I brought into the field with me. And we actually made a lot of progress on that. There turned out to be ways to identify those illicit markets, ways to go after them.

There was something in the Clinton years built on the insights out of the Boston work, called the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative that took these new ideas about disrupting illegal gun markets to about 60 cities across the country. At the same time, that simply turned out not to be the high-value possibility. The voltage you get out of any of the approaches to gun control, that anybody has tried, is dramatically less than this other stuff, this other unexpected stuff that it's turned out to be possible to do.

DAVIES: In the book you describe taking both of these approaches, to reducing violence and open-drug markets to other cities with a lot of success. But there are also difficulties. There are places where it doesn't work. There was, you know, the distressing resurgence of murder rates in Boston after a period of time. And it seems to be that one of the lessons is that making this work is a management challenge. And I always tell people, people don't realize how hard it is to manage in the public sector - whether civil service rules and political rivalries and union contracts and political pressures and budget constraints, and you've got to get all these different parties: the cops, the parole officers, the prosecutors, focused - working from the same playbook. Not easy to do, is it?

KENNEDY: It's not easy to do. And it was particularly not easy to do at the beginning. Building the understanding in cities and in the different communities involved that this was worth taking seriously, took creating a lot of facts on the ground. And during that kind of early time there is a horribly depressing litany of cities that made it work, let it fall apart. They controlled their killing, the killing came back, and Boston is one of them. Boston is actually the best known of them.

At the same time, the record was building, the credibility across cities was building, that this actually was worth paying attention to and investing in. And the understanding grew that it has to be more than somebody's pet project - that it's worth making a city priority, a police department priority, a public management priority because it does pay off that well.

DAVIES: You know, one of the signification things about these approaches to both stopping violence at eliminating open-air drug sales, is that it's - you write that it's not about locking people up; it's, in fact, about not locking them up. What's the significance of that?

KENNEDY: The significance of that is in its way entire in a bunch of ways. So one is we've tried locking everybody up and at least in these neighborhoods it hasn't worked. And, you know, in some of these neighborhoods nearly all of the men have felony records. So A, it hasn't worked. And B, without meaning to we have ruined that community. No community can function when all of its men either are or have been locked up. So we destroy the community while we're trying to protect it. That fuels these angry historically oppressed community's conviction that we are deliberately trying to destroy them. It plays into these toxic racial narratives and to our real awful racial history.

If we play against type - so if we not only stop doing this damage in the neighborhood, if there's a different way to stop the crime and the violence without locking people up, not only do we not do that unintended damage, but we show the neighborhood that what it thinks of the cops and the outside is wrong and taking the crime seriously, while also taking seriously that we have to stop locking everybody up, tells the community a new story and that releases enormous good things.

DAVIES: Well, I want to wish you the best of luck. David Kennedy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KENNEDY: My thanks to you.

GROSS: David Kennedy spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Kennedy's new book is called "Don't Shoot." He directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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