Don’t Shoot

“There is no dumber organization on the planet than a young man with his friends watching” (David Kennedy)

Just yesterday, along the American River bike trail in Carmichael, three young men, two white and one Asian, provided a fabulous illustration of the above maxim from author and criminal justice activist David Kennedy. I had pulled my bike over for a bathroom break, and I overheard the trio as they jogged past, proudly moaning about the two-hour workouts imposed last year by their high school cross country coach. I idly thought about the stress fractures I suffered in my own 11-grade year from too many similar workouts, and casually whether these young athletes went to nearby Jesuit High School, which hosts one of California’s elite high school track and cross country programs.

Back on my bike a couple of minutes later, I was drawing close to the three young runners when, without looking, one swerved in front of my bike, heading toward some dirt trails on the left side of the bike path. The other two, perhaps impressed by the obvious genius of their comrade, immediately and without even attempted glances over their shoulders, followed suit. I braked hard and using my lowest teacher voice said something to the effect of, “You really need to look behind you.” Anger flashed momentarily across the otherwise flat expression of the young man closest to me, and then the three continued on their way without word.

Part of the point of David Kennedy’s comment in the quotation at the top of this blog post is that young male gang members caught up in gun violence are, in terms of their psychology, not that different from the young cross country runners I ran into on my bike ride. Also like the runners, the gang members are not free agents but participants in a wider community with shared beliefs and shared social norms.

Here the similarity ends. And lest my casual story about a jaywalking-type incident one sunny Wednesday morning on a bike path in the Sacramento suburbs leads you to believe that I think that gun violence is only an issue of casual importance when it comes to creating a prosperous, successful city, you would be wrong. The truth is that if you want a prosperous city, the first, most basic priority must be safety, including safety for people living in the decidedly, often brutally unsafe neighborhoods that exist in practically every US metro area and that represent the physical manifestation of our nation’s failure to adequately confront a legacy of racism and generational poverty.

With this in mind I want to strongly recommend Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot – one of the most passionate, quirky, and convincing books I’ve ever read on an urban policy issue. Kennedy fervently believes there is a clear, replicable formula to drastically bring down the level of violence in the communities (many black) where current violence levels are not, as Kennedy puts it, “survivable.” Kennedy’s program, sometimes called Ceasefire, has worked to drastically reduce levels of violent crime in cities ranging from Boston to Stockton (where Kennedy claims that a Ceasefire-type program has reduced crime by 55 percent). Ceasefire is based on the assumption that a small number of thugs on a few blocks and street corners and apartment buildings often drive most of a city’s violent crime. The key is to target these individuals in a way that does not alienate the wider communities and neighborhoods that surround them. As Kennedy stated in a January 2013 Huffington Post Op-Ed, Ceasefire programs are, “concrete, pragmatic working partnerships between police and communities. Evidence shows that they reduce violence, but they also have the important effect of increasing police legitimacy, the belief that authorities are acting with respect and in communities’ best interests. ”

Here is my own, more extended review of the ideas underpinning Kennedy’s argument in Don’t Shoot.

  • You don’t have to “go through” root causes: Kennedy is absolutely firm on the point that you don’t have to unmake racism, eliminate poverty, banish violent video games, ban assault weapons, improve the public schools, or fix any other root cause of gun violence in order to have a huge and lasting impact on the rates of violent crime in America’s most dangerous neighborhoods. These things may be desirable to address on their own merits, but addressing them is not a prerequisite to reducing gun violence, full stop. There are much, much simpler solutions.
  • You must focus on a small number of key people in key places: It turns out that most gun violence is ultimately fomented by what Kennedy describes as a “vanishingly small” number of young male gang members in “hot” neighborhoods (or more specifically hot blocks, or hot street corners). Police and community organizations need to communicate a clear deterrence message directly to these young men, rather than make entire neighborhoods and communities a law enforcement target.
  • You must assume rationality and deliver a targeted message: Kennedy’s approach assumes that young offenders are rational, and that a deterrence message will work if it is focused enough. As Kennedy writes about an early version of Project Ceasefire in Boston, “It was narrow – don’t shoot. 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. Turn your life around. Go back to school, get a job, go forth and sin no more. This cut to the chase: don’t hurt people.”
  • You must be willing to back up deterrence with action: The approach Kennedy advocates in Don’t Shoot assumes a lot of up front outreach work among various levels of government and community organizations. But this is not a soft, liberal approach. Kennedy thinks none of the outreach will work if law enforcement isn’t willing to follow through on tough, very public punishments for the young men who actually shoot people. This includes various levels of law enforcement  working closely with prosecutors collaborating to  make public examples of the worst actors through long federal prison sentences.
  • You must at all times work to build legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the policed: Kennedy is very clear on the idea that lack of trust in the police (including the terrible “no snitching” ethos) is grounded in the very real historical experience of members of historically oppressed communities, and especially the African American community. Until the police can build legitimacy there will be no community buy-in, and without community buy-in it will be difficult or impossible to stop the shooting.

But I’ve talked enough about my take on Don’t Shoot. You should get the book yourself. Or at very least you should check out the National Network for Safe Communities, at Plus check out this excellent You Tube video featuring Kennedy speaking with John Seabrook at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.

In the future, since Kennedy claims Stockton as one of his biggest success stories, I hope to present more information on public safety trends in Sacramento’s working class southern sister. How solid are Kennedy’s claims of a 55 percent reduction in shootings, and what is working in Stockton that might be replicated here?