Last month, a team including some of New York City's top law enforcement officials met with a group of men who are—in the estimation of the police, at any rate—among the likeliest in Brooklyn to kill or die by gunfire.
The meeting was an experiment, part of a pilot program with two ambitious goals: First, to reduce shootings and homicides in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the city. Second, to fix broken relationships between residents of those neighborhoods and the police.
“We’re focusing on the people most at risk of being harmed and harming others, and letting them know that it has to stop,” said Susan Herman, a deputy commissioner for the New York Police Department charged with building partnerships between police and communities.
The new program, which in New York goes by the name NYC Ceasefire, is adapted from a national model that has been used in over 50 other cities—often with dramatically successful results.
Here, it offers a fresh approach to addressing one of the city’s most intractable policing problems: Famously, crime has nosedived over the past twenty years. Yet shootings remain stubbornly high in small pockets of the city—in large part, cops say, because of conflicts between small gangs and street crews feuding over blocks and housing developments. The perpetrators are particularly hard to prosecute in these cases because victims and witnesses often refuse to talk to police.
For much of the last decade, the NYPD’s strategy was to blanket high-crime neighborhoods with police. In 2011, the department recorded over 31,000 stop-and-frisks in East New York, Brooklyn, alone, according to data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
But the police were nearly always stopping innocent people, because even in the most violent neighborhoods, only a tiny fraction of residents commit serious crimes.
“If you identify all the violent groups and add them up, they are going to represent under one-half of one percent of any jurisdiction,” said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who first developed the Ceasefire strategy while working as a researcher at Harvard University in the 1990s.
New York’s Ceasefire program aims to zero in on that tiny percentage, while leaving the law-abiding citizens alone. Herman and her staff at the NYPD use information gathered from social media to identify violent group members who are on parole or probation. These individuals are then summoned to a mandatory meeting, where cops and prosecutors team up with neighborhood residents to deliver a message for the gang members to take back to their crews.
These meetings begin by invoking what Herman describes as the “moral voice of the community.”
“We tell them, ‘We care about you,’” Herman said. “We want you safe, we want you alive and we want you out of prison. To do that, the violence has to stop.”
Gang members are also notified about services that could help them turn their lives around—anything from GED classes to city ID cards to help finding a job.
“We’re there to show them, this is not the only option you have,” said Cory Robbins, a social worker at New York Foundling, the lead service provider involved in the Ceasefire program. “A lot of these young men have been in these situations for so long, sometimes it's harder to get out than to stay in.”
Local pastors emphasize the destruction caused by violence in the community. Mothers of murdered sons beg gang members not to cause their own families the same heartache.
And then comes a warning: If the shooting doesn’t end, prosecutors will use every means at their disposal to make consequences rain down—not just on the next person who pulls the trigger, but on his entire group. Those on probation or parole will find their conditions tightened. District attorneys will aggressively investigate minor complaints. Federal prosecutors will push for maximum punishment in cases that would normally molder in a file.
“The group is probably not legally responsible for the homicide," Kennedy said. "But you know and we know that in the group you are committing crimes at astronomical rates. You are selling drugs, you have outstanding warrants, you have unpaid child support, you are stealing the power and cable TV coming into your houses. You are subjecting your dogs to unsafe conditions.”
“The price for the killing is going to fall across the group,” he said. And when that message gets out, "the group realizes, the killing is bad for us and we are going to control ourselves.”
The NYC Ceasefire project is currently being tested in 12 NYPD precincts, including all of Patrol Borough Brooklyn North, which encompasses the Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York neighborhoods, and two precincts in Brooklyn South. Last year, Brooklyn North was home to nearly a quarter of the city’s homicides.
Officers held the program’s first call-in meeting last December, with an audience of 16 young men from Brooklyn gangs and crews, Herman said. It was followed by a second call-in during the first week of March, with 22 attendees. Police have also visited 23 members of target gangs at their homes, to deliver the Ceasefire messages in-person.
* * *
In the twenty years since David Kennedy first developed the Ceasefire strategy, he has become something of a cult celebrity in the world of fighting crime. He’s tall and lean, with a Willie Nelson beard and mustache, hair that falls down his back and a penchant for black jeans and button-downs. Journalists often describe him as looking like Jesus, and there’s certainly something evangelical in the way he talks about his program.
If Ceasefire is executed correctly, Kennedy believes, it can stop the most pernicious of gang feuds, bring peace to neighborhoods and save the lives of imperiled boys and men.
It’s a claim with an unusually large volume of data to back it up: In Boston, where Kennedy first tested Ceasefire at the invitation of then-Boston Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, researchers documented a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides, according to a meta-analysis of evaluation studies published in 2012. (Read the U.S. Department of Justice summary here.)
Indianapolis saw a 34 percent drop in killings after the program was implemented there. In Stockton, California, gun homicides went down by 42 percent. Gun assault incidents dropped 44 percent in Lowell, Massachusetts, and homicides among criminal groups decreased by 35 percent in Cincinnati. (Last fall, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tapped Kennedy to lead a $5 million national initiative on improving relations between police and minority communities.)
While it’s too soon to tell if similar results will be achieved in New York, an NYPD spokesman recently credited the project with an 11.7 percent drop in shootings in Brooklyn.
But Ceasefire also has critics on both ends of the political spectrum. In March, the New York Post ran a hit piece describing the program’s call-ins as “pizza parties for gangbangers.”
On the other hand, critics on the left argue that the program is too punitive—the sticks too big and the carrots insufficiently enticing.
“What pathways off the streets are really being offered to these young people?” asked Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who studies policing in New York City. “Is there support to get them to stay in school? Are there algebra tutors or mentoring? Are we saying something like if you can stay in school, there's a job waiting for you? Or are we putting everything into the punitive side?”
The last thing struggling communities need is more police surveillance, said Andre T. Mitchell, the founder and executive director of Man Up! Inc., a five-year-old violence prevention project in Brownsville. Ceasefire, Mitchell said, “is basically based on threats. The services are miniscule in comparison.”
Man Up! Inc. is one of 17 small, neighborhood-based programs in the city that follow the so-called “Cure Violence” model. These programs hire ex-offenders—known as “violence interrupters”—to intervene in violent conflicts without involving the police, largely by providing intensive, long-term mentoring to the people most likely to commit the next shooting.
“It’s not about incarceration,” Mitchell said. “That doesn’t do the communities any good. It doesn’t give the person any chance of being qualified for employment or housing.”
“Without those [qualifications],” Mitchell continued, “gangs are the only section of society that's willing to welcome them in.”
Ceasefire supporters agree that the program is tough, but counter that it gives community residents a chance to see police acting in a way that seems fair.
When cops “take the time to tell folks, ‘This is my job, you have these choices, here are the consequences if you mess up,’ that creates a sense of legitimacy,” said James Brodick, project director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, a neighborhood court program that is joining the NYC Ceasefire team. “Then, if an arrest does go down, people have the opportunity to think, ‘This didn't just happen to me. I played a role in making this happen.’”
Changing perceptions in police-community relations work in both directions, Kennedy said.
“[Ceasefire] brings the police to a point where they realize that even in the most violent neighborhoods, hardly anybody is violent,” Kennedy said. “Police can say to the community, 'We are not going to treat everybody here as though they're a problem. We're going to do things differently.'"
This story was produced by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, an applied research institute that seeks to drive innovation in social policy.