Better late than never for Ceasefire

"O'Malley smiled and read his mail," David Kennedy, the widely respected criminologist, recalls of a December 1999 meeting with the new mayor of Baltimore. Martin O'Malley sat by while Jack Maple, his crime-fighting consultant from New York City, browbeat Kennedy, peppered him with questions, cut off his answers and either betrayed or feigned ignorance of Kennedy's violence-reducing strategy called Ceasefire.

Kennedy recalls the exchange in his 2012 book, "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America."


The criminologist had come to Baltimore in the 1990s to advise O'Malley's overwhelmed predecessor, Kurt Schmoke. Ceasefire had been credited with significantly reducing fatal shootings of young men in Boston in the 1990s. Baltimore, meanwhile, had an annual homicide count of more than 300. The city desperately needed help.

But with O'Malley's election in 1999, Ceasefire's future here wasn't clear. So Kennedy came for a meeting with the new mayor at City Hall. Instead of O'Malley's ear, he got Maple's mouth.


"Maple ripped me from limb to limb," Kennedy writes. "When's your team going to be operational? It's not really a team, it's a strategy group that How many drug investigations can your team do? It's not really an investigative group, it's putting together How big an impact do you expect? Well, what we've seen in other places We did better than Boston in New York. When do you expect to see impact? We hope to be operational inside of six weeks, and we usually see impact I'll have the city under control by the end of January. It went on for an hour. O'Malley smiled and read his mail."

I can relate. I once met with O'Malley at City Hall to discuss the need to provide comprehensive job-training services to ex-offenders so, on parole or probation, they would not return to Baltimore and continue the cycle of crime. I had written several columns on the subject and wondered if O'Malley had considered taking the lead on ex-offender initiatives. But he wasn't at all interested, seemed distracted, said something patronizing, then went off to campaign for governor.

Of course, I'm just a newspaper guy. David Kennedy, on the other hand, was an accomplished crime researcher who had won awards for his strategies. He deserved a lot more of O'Malley's time and consideration.

It never happened. Cleaning up after the dreary Schmoke years and elected on a crime-fighting promise, O'Malley had other ideas and he was determined to see them implemented. He hired Maple, the former New York City deputy commissioner, to bring zero-tolerance policing to Baltimore. That strategy had more to do with statistics and arrests than with the kind of holistic approach Kennedy promoted.

Operation Ceasefire, which is going to be tried in Baltimore again — this time, apparently in earnest — focuses on the small number of violent offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of the city's shootings. Kennedy estimates that "under half of one percent of a city's population commit half to three-quarters of all murders," and most of the offenders are involved in gangs and drug crews.

A key piece of Ceasefire is intervention: Hyper-focus on the few suspects who have violent histories — as perpetrators or victims — and who cause most of the problems in specific "hot spots" within neighborhoods. Round them up and have parole and probation officials call them to a group meeting where they receive warnings about the consequences of more criminality and offers of help to get out of the life.

I attended one of these seven years ago in the Police Department's Western District, though it wasn't called Ceasefire and David Kennedy was nowhere to be found. A sort of "felons' town hall" had been organized by the city police and the U.S. attorney's office. Six "citizens of concern" were in the audience, and, one by one, various law enforcement officials warned them what they faced if they continued to engage in crime.

A federal prosecutor told them the story of Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas, once considered one of the most violent men in the city. Convicted in U.S. District Court of carrying out a contract killing for a drug dealer, Thomas received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He went to a federal penitentiary in Colorado, where he'll stay for the rest of his life.


As he spoke, the prosecutor had the full attention of the six "citizens of concern," all men in their 20s and 30s, all with criminal histories. "We don't want to prosecute you," another prosecutor told them. "We want you to put the guns down."

The messages seemed to register.

This "felons' town hall" was not a regular occurrence in Baltimore. But I remember thinking at the time: Why haven't we been doing this for the last decade? Why don't we see it once a month in every police district?

With Kennedy's Ceasefire back in Baltimore, and real commitment from City Hall, maybe now we will. Better late than never.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.