In the late 1990s, David M. Kennedy came to Baltimore riding high in criminology circles, eager to prove his unorthodox approach — which had reduced gun violence in Boston and Minneapolis — could work in one of America's most dangerous cities.
It was, by most measurements, a disaster and an experience that pushed him to the brink.
Fifteen years later, Kennedy is ready to try again, buoyed by successes in more than 60 other cities and widespread embrace of a philosophy once questioned as a gimmick. Those who worked with him are not surprised that Baltimore wants to give it another shot, but that he is willing to return.
"I'm shocked that he's coming back," said Jill Myers, a former city prosecutor who worked closely with Kennedy during his first visit.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake personally recruited Kennedy last fall during a visit to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where he is a professor. She became hooked after reading "Don't Shoot," his 2011 memoir documenting his approach, and called on him as homicides were rising in Baltimore.
Often referred to as "Ceasefire," the idea centers on shutting down drug markets and reducing shootings through face-to-face sessions, or "call-ins," where police, prosecutors, clergy and community members confront those believed responsible for violence. Suspects are told the authorities will come at them hard if shootings continue — but are offered an alternative path through mentoring opportunities and other programs.
Ceasefire is currently being praised by officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Oakland, Calif., which all saw steep declines in murders last year.
"I think it's pretty revolutionary," said Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who has integrated the ideas into daily policing there. "It's becoming a part of our DNA. It's really limitless."
Baltimore has been a dark chapter in Kennedy's 30-year career. In his book, he called the city "hell," the most chaotic criminal environment he'd seen to that point. And he noted that political wrangling within law enforcement —the worst he's seen to date —led to the premature demise of his anti-violence work in the city.
He began working with the city while Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was in power, but Martin O'Malley was less enthusiastic about the program after he took over in 1999. Kennedy wrote in his book that O'Malley read his mail during their contentious first meeting, and never bought in.
Rawlings-Blake says she's firmly onboard with Kennedy's approach and believes the time is right to bring it back.
"For a myriad of reasons, we're in a different moment," Rawlings-Blake said of Kennedy's past experience here. "We've come a long way … and having the experience of seeing some success, I saw an opportunity to reintroduce something that I believe has the potential to bring dramatic results."
Kennedy, whose account of his time in Baltimore also describes a personal struggle with insomnia, exhaustion and a frightening experience with a prescription drug meant to treat those problems, said he has since refined his approach and demonstrated that it will work in places small and large.
"We know more than we did then," Kennedy said. "The opportunity to try to do it right this time is something very valuable to me."
Law enforcement officials in Baltimore and Maryland have been using principles of Ceasefire in recent years, crediting a sharper focus on the most violent offenders for the decline in shootings and homicides in the city from 2008 to 2011. Officials have also done a handful of stripped-down call-ins.
To that end, Rawlings-Blake, who announced the program during her recent State of the City address, said Ceasefire will "harmonize" and build on what is already being done. The cost of the program is estimated at $380,000, which will come from the city's general fund.
Gov. Martin O'Malley did not respond to specific questions about Ceasefire, but said in a statement that his administration "stands ready to support the city in any and all efforts to protect the public's safety."
Cooperation is essential to the program's success, advocates say, because all the partners following through on the crackdown threats and offers of assistance lends the program credibility.
Officials from other agencies said they have been briefed in recent weeks. A spokesman for the state agency that oversees parole and probation said it is "not actively participating" in Baltimore Ceasefire, but would consider it. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein called the program "consistent with what we've been doing" and said his office would participate.
Kennedy was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Detroit suburbs. Known for his distinctive long hair and penchant for dark clothing, he studied moral philosophy at Swarthmore College and got involved in criminology while working as a case-study writer at Harvard University.
His work over more than 20 years in America's worst neighborhoods has led him to the conclusion that the conditions in inner cities are "not only unconscionable, they are infinitely worse than almost anyone can imagine." But he says less than one-half of 1 percent of a city's population is at risk of killing someone or being killed. Getting to them, and in turn their networks, can bring down violence.
"What looks like a lost neighborhood is a neighborhood with a handful of people whose names we can learn," Kennedy said. "If we change their behavior, we change the dynamic. This is not a theory. This is work we know how to do."
Former Baltimore police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a Ceasefire supporter, said the program requires a broad-based, coordinated effort. "People screw up when they think this is a Police Department initiative. It's an ideology that has to be embraced on many, many levels. There's a thousand ways to screw it up if people don't believe in it at its core."
Bealefeld said the opportunities and threats must be perceived as authentic.
"You can't show up and hand out pamphlets. You have to be ready to really move a kid out of the neighborhood, into housing, and into a job so he could give up a life of violence," Bealefeld said. "On the other side, if a kid doesn't avail himself of that and continues to engage in violence, you have to be ready with the resources to drop an anvil on his head."
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who has known Kennedy since his days in the Long Beach, Calif., Police Department, agreed.
"If you're giving them threats or promises that you can't follow up on, and a crime happens and they don't get popped, you're a toothless tiger," he said in a recent radio interview.
Ceasefire promises no magic wand. Sustaining the work has been an issue, and there are limits to the number of people who can be helped. In Cincinnati, where officials credit the program with reducing homicides, far more people sought jobs than the city could provide.
Kennedy and his team came to Baltimore in 1998, the last year Baltimore recorded 300 homicides.
They sat down with police and charted the city's killings, coming up with more than 3,000 people connected to half of the killings. The killings commonly occurred in or around drug shops, even though the motives were typically over respect or vendettas, he found. Call-ins were eventually held in Park Heights, Cherry Hill and Oliver.
But the effort never really got going. Officials weren't consistent in maintaininginterest and resources, those involved say. The U.S. attorney at the time, Lynn A. Battaglia, publicly pulled federal authorities out of the effort, telling The Baltimore Sun at the time that it was a "massive undertaking. None of us want to be part of a potential failure." Police and prosecutors were openly fighting with each other.
O'Malley, meanwhile, was moving to a zero-tolerance strategy using advisers and police officials from New York.
"There was just chaos in the law-enforcement community," recalls Hathaway Ferebee, who runs the Safe and Sound youth advocacy group and was a key partner. "It was about who would lead, and what kind of reports would be given on the success of individual agencies."
Baltimore did see a decline in homicides in 2000, dropping to 253, at that time the lowest level in a decade. Some of the reductions were seen in areas where call-ins were held. But the effort fell apart, and homicides began to rise again.
The "Boston Miracle," which saw a drastic reduction in youth homicides in that city in the mid-1990s, is perhaps how Kennedy is still best known, but he's since created a national network that allows cities to discuss and build on his ideas.
A Philadelphia City Council hearing last week featured testimony from some of the 103 young men who had been targeted for intervention in South Philadelphia; they testified about the difference it made in their lives.
Officials there believe the effort played a role in Philadelphia's historic drop in homicides: from 331 in 2012 to 247 last year.
"Some of these guys were the worst of the worst. Nobody would've thought they'd be at a City Council hearing, advocating for a program that turns your life around," said Philadelphia Councilman-at-large Dennis M. O'Brien. "Some of the toughest guys are the first ones to call."
McCarthy, the Chicago superintendent, was an early fan of Kennedy's work and says police are quietly using Ceasefire principles in six of its most violent police districts (there are 22 districts overall) and plan to expand it to nine. He said some critics believe the intervention work is "making a deal with the devil."
"What you're doing is trying to talk sense into people, while not compromising our law-enforcement hammer," McCarthy said. He said police there have adapted the call-in approach to its regular response to shootings.
"We had a murder last night, and today we're working up all the players from these two or three particular gangs that are involved," he said. "We'll be going to their residences and basically doing the same thing you do at the call-in — sitting down with their family members and saying, 'We don't want to see you in a body bag.'"
Kennedy, who has relatives in and around Baltimore and said he loved visiting the city's farmers' markets, will be less hands-on this time, advising a local government official who will oversee the program.
He chooses his words carefully when discussing the past. He is eager to see the program work, which will take time, and says too much scrutiny could torpedo the effort.
"Some cities decide they want to implement it and not say anything, which means people think nothing's happening, or others say they're going to do it, and people start looking at their watch," he said. "You have to ignore that noise and move on."