Of the ideas for reducing violence in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's State of the City address, the one with the greatest potential for immediate impact on Baltimore's skyrocketing homicide rate is her commitment to fully pursuing a set of crime fighting strategies known as Operation Ceasefire. Developed in Boston in the 1990s, Ceasefire is based on what is by now a familiar premise in Baltimore, that a disproportionate amount of violence is committed by a small and inter-related set of people. It targets them with interventions designed both to assist them in leaving violence behind and to offer swift and sure consequences if they don't. It worked in Boston, it has worked in other cities that have tried it, and it can work here.
The program goes like this: Officials hold what is known as a "call in" or a forum for gang members. There, street-wise outreach workers, respected community members like ministers, victims of crime, reformed felons, social workers and others make the consequences of violence on the community clear while offering support for those who want to leave the gang life behind. They may offer job training assistance, GED classes and other services. Then the police come in and explain what the consequences will be if the violence continues.
The police don't offer a free pass for non-violent offenses, but they do make clear that all members of a gang will be held accountable for the violence committed by one. They promise to "pull all the levers," in Ceasefire parlance, to go after those associated with violence for every offense possible, from drug dealing to public drunkenness. There, it differs from the indiscriminate mass arrest policies that Baltimore and other cities have employed. By using sophisticated tools to analyze the social networks of gang members, the enforcement activity can be targeted just at those who commit violence and their close associates. Essentially, it relies on existing networks and street codes as self-enforcement mechanisms to reduce violence.
If all that sounds somewhat familiar, it's because Baltimore has employed most of those tactics to one degree or another. The city conducted some call-ins and was able to track the response from those who wanted out of the gang life. Former police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's "bad guys with guns" strategy was similar in many respects to the targeted enforcement used in Ceasefire. Under Gov. Martin O'Malley, the state's parole and probation office began working much more closely with city police to help in that effort. And the Exile program in the Baltimore U.S. attorney's office has brought the enhanced resources necessary to provide the sure, swift and severe punishment that goes along with a Ceasefire-like strategy.
In Boston, the results from Ceasefire were immediate and profound. It was implemented there in response to a rise in youth homicides in the mid-1990s, and it was associated with a 63 percent drop in such killings. Ceasefire was discontinued for a time in Boston, and killings started to rise again. Then it was reinstated in 2007, and violence receded. Total gang-related shootings dropped by 30 percent between 2006 and 2010, but according to a 2013 research paper published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, shootings involving the gangs specifically targeted by Ceasefire dropped by 57 percent on average.
Results in other cities have been just as impressive; Cincinnati adopted Ceasefire under the tutelage of its prime architect, criminologist David M. Kennedy, and gang-related homicides there dropped by half within the first two years of its implementation. For that matter, Baltimore experienced its lowest homicide totals in decades during the years when it was most actively engaged in Ceasefire-like activities.
It has also become clear through the experience of other cities that Ceasefire is resource-intensive and requires real commitment from law enforcement officials, political leaders, community groups and others. It's not something that can be done half-way. That's why it was heartening to see Mayor Rawlings-Blake make it the first program idea she discussed in her State of the City address. Part of what makes Ceasefire work is that it represents a concerted statement that violence is not acceptable in any form, even when it is a matter of one gang member attacking another. Her administration has at times failed in communicating that sentiment in its attempts to highlight declines in other types of crime, most explicitly in Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' recent assertion that the city's high homicide rate is not something that affects "everyday citizens."
In contrast, the mayor got it right when she noted her own family's terrible experiences with Baltimore's violence, saying, "Each life that is lost represents a future tragically cut short, a community that is shaken, and a family that is shattered by their loss." Ceasefire has the potential to change the culture of violence here, but only if that message goes from the mayor, to the police, to the communities, to the gang members on the streets.
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