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Anti-violence program Operation Ceasefire another city fail

In the annals of Baltimore's long, frustrating battle against violent crime, Operation Ceasefire was introduced with much fanfare — and a startup cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — in 2014. But the operation appears to have been a failure. The once-promising Ceasefire is apparently kaput.

I say "apparently," because getting information from city officials about this successful-almost-everywhere-but-Baltimore program has been a weirdly difficult challenge.

As originally designed by criminologist David Kennedy, Ceasefire — or what Kennedy calls Group Violence Intervention — focuses on the relatively small number of violent offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of a city's shootings. Kennedy once estimated that "under half of one percent of a city's population commit half to three-quarters of all murders," and most of the offenders, he said, were involved in gangs or drug crews.

A central part of the Ceasefire model is the face-to-face session, or "call-in," in which police, prosecutors, clergy, community members and social service providers confront those considered likely to commit acts of violence. There's nothing touchy-feely about it. Those invited to the call-in get a stern warning about the harsh punishment to come should they be arrested with guns again, and they are offered a chance to turn away from crime through job programs and mentoring.

Sounds like just the thing Baltimore needs, doesn't it?

The program, developed in the 1990s to reduce gun violence and recidivism among ex-offenders, has had some success in at least 60 cities. That's what The Baltimore Sun reported a couple of years ago when we looked at the program, and Kennedy's National Network for Safe Communities, which helps develop local versions of Ceasefire, lists projects in 84 jurisdictions in 28 states.

The NNSC is based at John Jay College in New York City. Kennedy is its director.

"The aim of the GVI strategy," the NNSC says on its website, "is to reduce peer dynamics that promote violence by creating collective accountability, to foster internal social pressure that deters violence, to establish clear community standards against violence, to offer group members an 'honorable exit' from committing acts of violence, and to provide a supported path for those who want to change."

Over the years, the program has been evaluated and widely praised.

In 2014, when then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the return of Ceasefire to Baltimore — it had been tried here briefly in the late 1990s — I thought it was a smart move. (I just didn't think it was necessary to pay the NNSC $415,000 to get it started when there had been an effective local city-federal version of Ceasefire in place, and at much lower cost, back when Sheila Dixon was mayor.)

In 1999, Kennedy was rudely dismissed by then-Mayor Martin "Zero Tolerance" O'Malley. But he was welcomed by Rawlings-Blake, who believed that Kennedy's strategy would "bring dramatic results" in lowering crime.

And in the first year of operation Kennedy reported an 80 percent drop in "group member-involved" homicides in the Western District, one of the city's most violent. Ceasefire also went into operation in the Eastern District.

The Freddie Gray disturbances were disruptive to a lot of things, including Ceasefire. But the program had problems almost from the start, a year before before the rioting and vandalism of April 2015.

The first director of the local operation, LeVar Michael, complained that police commanders did not understand the program and that he did not receive adequate support from City Hall for the social services side of Ceasefire. He resigned in protest. It's one thing to play hardball with ex-offenders about consequences of more violence, another to offer them the help they need to break the cycle of criminality.

A successful Ceasefire would be a combination of both.

Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said the program was done on the cheap — and it did not follow Kennedy's design.

"There were several problems with implementation," Webster says. "Not targeting the right people, no real follow-through with delivering services to offenders, among other things."

So now Ceasefire is finished.

Anthony McCarthy, speaking for Mayor Catherine Pugh, sent the following statement by email: "Ceasefire has worked in some jurisdictions and has not been successful in others, including Baltimore. Mayor Pugh and the Baltimore Police Department, given the budget realities we're facing, must reassess its assets and resources to reach the laudable goals we all agree are important."

I asked McCarthy if this meant the program was dead.

"The program is no longer operational," he said.

"Disappointing," says Webster, "because the approach has a pretty good track record in other cities."

It's a shame. One of the most frustrating things about the long crime fight in Baltimore has been the lack of consistency, either in command or in strategy. The renowned Ceasefire program never seems to have had a real shot at making a difference here. It's as if we can't have nice things.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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