David Kennedy: how to stop the killing

David Kennedy

By Alan Bean

I am re-posting this review of David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot because it addresses the issue of gun violence in realistic, practical and non-ideological terms that make sense to me.  America is obsessed with guns and violence.  The reform movement is right about the need for common sense gun reform.  The NRA is right about the toxic impact of violent movies and video games.  But when you ask why the murder rate in this country is six times as high as most other western democracies, you’re talking about several hundred inner city neighborhoods.

If you want to know how these neighborhoods turned into killing fields, the best place to begin is with William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears.  If you want a primer on felon disenfranchisement and the horror of the war on drugs, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  But if you just want the shooting to stop, David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot is by far the best advice going.  Here’s my summary of his argument.

David M. Kennedy: Don’t Shoot: The End of Violence in Inner-City America

David Kennedy

David Kennedy directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and teaches criminal justice at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  He is bright, intense, and haunted by the horrors he has witnessed on the streets of inner-city America. He doesn’t place his hope in the conversion of white suburbanites; his focus is on a perception gap that keeps police officers and residents of high-crime neighborhoods from really seeing one another.

Kennedy isn’t dreaming of a drug-free utopia; he just wants children to be able to walk to school without encountering open air drug markets.  He isn’t trying to build crime-free communities, he just wants the killing to stop.  “The killing’s wrong,” he says.  “The killing’s terrible, it’s got to stop.  Even the street guys, almost all of them, think that.”

In Kennedy’s plan, those who think the killing is okay go to prison; everybody else gets a second chance.  His first big revelation, when he started working on violence reduction in the mid-1990s, was that street thugs are rational.  Deliver the right information in a consistent and convincing manner, back words with action, and even violent drug dealers will do the smart thing.

Everything we think we know about drug dealers is wrong, Kennedy says.  Most street dealers work for less than minimum wage; that’s why most of them are easily mistaken for homeless people.  Most of the money they make goes for drugs, running shoes, beer and rims.  They generally live with mothers or grandmothers.  With few exceptions, they hate the violence that swirls around them but feel powerless to stop it.  Most of them never shoot anyone, and when they do it is almost about petty beefs, reputation maintenance and boy-girl stuff.

Moreover, the violence is restricted to a small number of people, Kennedy reports.  Most of the killing in a typical city is confined to a few “hot” neighborhoods, and even in these communities the violence is restricted to a handful of gangs or street crews.  Within these groups, only a tiny minority fit the “cold killer” stereotype.  Most gangs don’t kill anyone in any given year, Kennedy explains, and some gangs don’t kill anyone ever.  He estimates that most of the violence is being driven by three-tenths of a percent of the population.

To stop street violence, he argues, you must first understand the world these kids live in.

A world in which young men stand against a powerful, malevolent world and say to themselves and to each other, Prison’s no big thing; I’m going to be dead by the time I’m twenty-five, so nothing really matters; if a man is disrespected, he has to return violence or he’s not a man; the enemy of my friend is my enemy; I’m a victim, so I’m justified in what I do . . . It is a world that believes that it acts with righteousness.  It is a world that believes the community around it does not care, or is complicit, or is supportive.  It is a world that believes that the police hate it and are motivated by racism and personal animosity.

Street kids don’t think, speak or act as individuals, Kennedy insists, but as members of a group.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system isn’t set up to address group dynamics; it only deals with isolated individuals.

Kennedy likes to pare things down to their essential elements.  “America has four inextricably linked problems that converge in its most troubled communities,” he says.  “There’s the violence that terrorizes many of its . . . black and minority communities.  There’s the chaos that comes with . . . public drug markets.  There’s the devastation being wrought on . . . troubled black and minority communities by our criminal justice response to the first two problems.  And there’s the worsening racial divide that’s causing.  We can’t deal with any of them without dealing with all of them.  We deal with them, it’s a different country.”

Kennedy’s solution can be laid out in a ten-minute talk.   “The first step is to focus on groups that are violent right now.” You don’t worry about kids that might grow up to be violent, or about wannabees throwing gang signs on the corner.  Instead, you single out the most violent gang, focus on their most violent behavior and insist that it stop.  You don’t go to individuals, you go to groups; and you approach groups members as if they were rational human beings.

When you have the attention of the most violent gang in the neighborhood, you “spell out the new sanctioned environment that had been created for them.”  The message is simple: We love you and we want the best for you, but the killing has to stop.  The next time anybody in this crew shoots somebody, we’re coming after all of you.  To make this happen, you have to “organize law enforcement so it can provide a clear, crisp, predictable strategic response, particularly to the groups and collectives at the center of the action.”

It isn’t hard to follow through on these threats, Kennedy says, because members of the most violent gangs almost always have a rap sheet a foot long.  Follow through is essential, however.  Come down hard on one gang and the streets go quiet.  Empty threats accomplish nothing.  Street hustlers are used to being lied to.  That’s what they expect.

Finally, Kennedy says, you must “offer a way out for those that want it.”  While he believes in offering educational and vocational help to the most motivated gang members, Kennedy’s method doesn’t hinge on the success of this step.  “Not everybody has to get a job for the killing to stop,” he says.  Even when help is offered, “not many street guys come forward, not that many can stick with the social-service programs designed to help them, not many can make it even when they really try.  They’re heavily compromised in awful ways: They have appalling criminal records, street attitudes that are hard to shake, they’re shocky, they have terrible work habits.  Jobs are hard to get even for people without all these problems . . . But you don’t need a job not to shoot people.  You don’t even need to live a straight life not to shoot people.  You just need not to shoot people.”

After a few years working on violence reduction, Kennedy turned his attention to drug markets.  Not drugs; drug markets.  You tell the street dealers to stop dealing on the corner.  Initially, nothing changes.  Then you secretly videotape a week of drug deals and invite the central players to a public meeting with the promise that “you will not be arrested.”  In the course of this meeting you roll the film and tell the dealers to raise their hands when they see themselves committing a felony.  But you only prosecute the dealers with a history of violence.  Everybody else gets a second chance.  If they screw up, they will be prosecuted.

Legitimacy is the key.  You must do precisely what you promise to do.  False promises are deadly.

When pressed, criminal justice reformers will admit that prosecutors and police officers have a legitimate place in society, but we rarely say so.  These people are central to the success of Kennedy’s system; he just wants them to stop shooting themselves in the foot.

It can’t be about getting drugs off the street, Kennedy insists; it’s about making the streets safe for old folks and little children.  Nor is it about crime.  “Framing this as crime is deeply, profoundly unfair to the most dangerous neighborhoods.”  Crime in poor neighborhoods isn’t that much worse than crime in affluent neighborhoods, Kennedy insists, it’s just out in the open, and that’s the problem. “We see two choices: the killing continues, or all the thugs turn their lives around and become middle-class taxpayers.  That’s not how it works, even in a lot of good neighborhoods.”

The goal, he says, is to stop the violence and end the chaos on the streets.  If the goal was to eliminate all crime, overt and covert, he says, you would see paramilitary tactics used in the suburbs.

We could saturate the white high schools and colleges with undercover officers, arrest lots of white kids.  We could follow the weed dealers back home, make sure they get in the house, kick in their doors, twist-tie their parents, shoot their dogs, seize their houses, get them and their families evicted from their apartments, make them homeless.  Tap their phones, find their suppliers, get everybody on RICO charges, threaten them with federal prison, drop hints about anal rape, flip them on their friends.  Easy.  If this were really about crime, we’d be doing it.

This is precisely the kind of drug interdiction that unfolds in poor neighborhoods every day.  It’s stupid, Kennedy says, it doesn’t work, it’s dehumanizing, and it’s wrong.

So, if the strategy is so simple, why does David Kennedy have that haunted look in his eye?  The hard part, he admits, is to get everyone involved in the system (the cops, the prosecutors, the parole and probation officers, the social workers, the local preachers and the “influentials” within the local community, to buy into the same message and a common strategy.

Turns out, it ain’t easy.  In fact, it’s so hard that Kennedy once suffered a complete emotional and physical collapse that sidelined his active work for a full year.  His willingness to share the painful side of his personal story lends an unusual poignancy and authenticity to Don’t Shoot.  Kennedy spares no one from his withering critique, least of all himself.

Here’s what makes it so hard to implement the reforms Kennedy champions.  “All sides—the neighborhoods, the streets, law enforcement—tell stories about each other that are at their heart deeply mistaken and deeply destructive.  But all sides are in deep ways rational, whatever may be appearances to the contrary, and all sides are willing to shift to a new place, if they can see it and find their way there.  Everybody, in a very real way, is keeping everybody else going.  Everybody can stop.”

Everybody is rational, he says, and everybody is wrong.  The police “thought the community was completely corrupt, from top to bottom,” while “the community thought the police were predators deliberately doing them horrendous harm.”  In short, “the relationship between the police and community was being poisoned by toxic racial narratives.”

Police officers abuse the residents of inner city neighborhoods and cut legal corners because, in their jaded and cynical eyes, every young man they see is a drug dealer and the community either endorses or tolerates their activities.  Kennedy loves police culture and enjoys being with cops, but he deplores “the kind of policing that makes citizens in these neighborhoods think, at best, that the police are not on their side, and at worst that they are a race enemy.”  If the police are viewed in this way, “there can be no rightful place for the law . . . When standing against guns and drugs and violence means standing with a race enemy, not many will stand.  When doing something means putting your own sons and grandsons and neighbors in prison, not many will do something.”

Moreover, Kennedy says, both police officers and community members must change their understanding of “street dealers and gang members.”  These kids aren’t getting rich and almost none of them are “superpredators”. “They don’t work steadily, they get robbed, they get arrested and can’t sell, they’re addicted and that’s where all the money goes, it rains and nobody’s out buying drugs, the cops are all over and nobody’s out, their connection gets busted and things dry up.”

Most importantly, “They’re getting hurt and killed at astronomical rates.  They’ve got real enemies after them, trying to hurt and kill them.  They get pushed into hurting, killing other people, because that’s what the street code says and their friends are watching.  They’re cycling endlessly through jail and prison.  They’re on probation and parole and can’t do what they want, have to piss in a cup.  The police roust them all the time.  They’re scared for their moms, wives, girlfriends, little brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.  Their fathers are absent or locked up, their brothers are dead or lucked up or paralyzed.  They’re saturated with PTSD.  Life is like a video game, it keeps on getting harder, they don’t know if they can take it much longer.”

Give these kids half a chance, Kennedy tells people, and they will jump at any credible alternative.  They’re desperate, and they’re scared to death.

Getting the street crews on board is the easy part, Kennedy discovered.  “The bad guys are not a problem.  I don’t know how to handle the good guys.”

The good guys are police chiefs, prosecutors, DEA and ATF agents, mayors, city officials, and the entire panoply or officialdom that must buy in before the operation can work.  Getting the police chief on board is the biggest step, Kennedy says.

When the good guys are sold on the project, the enormous gulf separating cops from community members must be confronted.  “If you want real, lasting change, if you want the cops and the neighborhoods and the streets to really see each other, hear each other, trust each other, you have to face how where we are now is infused with racial history, racial understandings, racial misunderstandings.”

That means confronting the toxic racial narratives that operate on both sides of the cop-community divide.  Neither conservative nor liberal perceptions are particularly helpful in this regard, Kennedy says.  Conservatives keep hoping that locking up more and more street kids will somehow solve the problem; liberals substitute sophistry for reality.  Kennedy is tired of academic bull-shit. “The smug notion that there is no problem here, or that this is all a moral panic, or that the problem with high-crime communities is the institutional racism of the criminal justice system, is a crock.”

Kennedy has spent hundreds of hours riding and working with police officers and says he has never heard a single racist remark.  What he sees, over and over, is insensitivity, illegality and a cynical disregard for civil rights.  This behavior, viewed against the backdrop of America’s tragic racial history, looks like racism even when it isn’t   The idea, common currency in these neighborhoods, that the government is running a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America is not as crazy as it sounds,” he says at community meetings.  “Up until the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement finally won out, America was a carefully organized racial conspiracy against black America.”

Unless the full ugliness of this history is trotted out in public and denounced, Kennedy believes, there can be no way forward.  At public meetings, he talks about the Klan, COINTELPRO and all the rest.  “This was America, our America,” he says.  “Whites tend barely to know it, or to diminish it, or to set it aside as then against wherever it is that now begins, like hoop skirts and the Lone Ranger on the radio; interesting, in a quaint kind of way, but of no real significance.”

Then Kennedy talks about the triumph and aftermath of the civil rights movement.  “The decades after the civil-rights victories should have been a celebration,” he says, but things did not go as planned.

Racial segregation declined; the black middle class grew dramatically.  But both the absolute number of blacks living in poverty and their concentration in poor neighborhoods increased.  For these neighborhoods, those decades were a spiral of decline . . . White flight, in the face of desegregation, weakened the core cities.  Black flight, enabled by desegregation, took many of the better-off residents with it.  School desegregation, busing, and more white withdrawal weakened school systems and eroded tax bases.  The decline of manufacturing and the growth of outsourcing took away living-wage jobs.  The increasing education requirements of jobs in the new economy left the marginally schooled further and further behind.

Only then does the drug issue enter his discussion.  “Crack and crack markets and already desperate community conditions and our law enforcement response fed on one another, a positive feedback loop of destruction that turned the spiral of decline into an endless free fall.”

Then Kennedy turns his attention to the police officers in the room.  “In these neighborhoods, the historical experience of abuse under color of law continues.  It is a kind of arithmetic truth that the worst of this is in the most desperate neighborhoods, that the worst law enforcement, and the worst of law enforcement’s unintended consequences, gets focused on the already most damaged, most alienated, most suspicious communities where the police break the law all the time.  All the time.”

If the communities don’t believe you feel their agony, Kennedy says, they will not listen.  He quotes Edward Copeland, a black minister friend from Rockford Illinois.

I’m not a psychiatrist, but there is a phenomenon of vicarious trauma.  If it happened to your cousin, your nephew, your classmate or your fellow choir member, it might as well have happened to you, and you might be next.  When you add media coverage of incidents like Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and others, a communal anguish and anger occurs that is hard to define or express.”

These events, Kennedy says, reinforce “what everything else in the neighborhood—the lack of work, the useless schools, the decay, all of it—says every day: The outside world does not care, is dangerous, touches us only to do us harm.”  And “nothing says that more than sending the neighborhood to prison.”

Like Michelle Alexander, Kennedy eschews fine distinctions between innocent victims and guilty thugs.  For the sake of argument, he writes, “Let’s say that each crime is real, each arrest and prosecution well grounded, each sentence statutory.  That doesn’t make what’s going on okay.  It doesn’t undo the damage that’s being done.  The point is that no community can survive many, most, of its men having criminal records, surging back and forth between prison and home, damaged for life no matter what they want and do . . . Nothing else will work until we fix this.”

Then Kennedy addresses the common theory that the despair in poor black communities is the product of an intentional conspiracy.  “There is—today—no government conspiracy to destroy the black community,” he states flatly.  “The government is not bringing the drugs into the country and distributing them.  There are no shadowy kingpins pulling the strings and making all the money . . . This isn’t a conspiracy; it’s a train wreck.”

There may be no conspiracy to destroy black America, but, like William Stuntz, Kennedy admits that “if we were trying to play to the idea that there is, we could hardly do a better job.”

Kennedy understands the frustration police feel.  “They see middle-class blacks thriving while these communities languish . . . I came up from poverty, they’ll say.  My parents taught me right.  I finished school, I started out bagging groceries, did the right thing, and here I am.”

True, Kennedy says, “But when you decided to finish school and start bagging groceries, did you have a felony jacket that made all that completely pointless?”

When Kennedy talks about working with the community, most cops tell him “there’s no community to work with . . . Everybody . . . is living off drug money, nobody cares, there’s no community left.”   Police officers “don’t understand the anger, see only excuses and victimhood.”  Cops don’t dislike black people, Kennedy insists, and they haven’t written off black America.  Police officers, black and white alike, “have written off the neighborhoods, the communities.”

Call this racism, Kennedy asserts, and cops shut down.  It isn’t racism, as the word is normally defined, “But it’s all soaked in race, simmering every day in our real, toxic history of racism, in the racism that remains.”

Kennedy’s system works best if the police chief can stand up and apologize to the community.  Sometimes that happens, with amazing results.  At the very least, police representatives must signal a desire for a fresh start.

Community buy-in is essential.  “Nobody can set standards for your community from the outside,” Kennedy tells his audience.  “If the only people saying, Don’t shoot, don’t sell drugs, are from the outside, in uniform, the streets won’t listen.  The cops have less than no standing.  If the guys on the corner don’t hear it from you, they think you don’t care, think you’re supporting them.”

The trick, Kennedy learned, was to enlist the support of “influentials” like mothers, grandmothers, pastors, teachers and pastors.  “Tell them their son is at a turning point; tell them they could be arrested now but we’re hoping to avoid that; tell them that they’ll be offered help, bring them, come with them.”

When street dealers know they will go to prison if they don’t make a change, Kennedy discovered, they will generally comply.  Most communities, he believes, operate on the basis of ‘informal social control’.  “Shame, conscience, guilt, what your friends think, what your mom thinks, what your community thinks—mean far more than ‘formal social control’: cops, courts, probation.  Most people do what they think is right, most of the time . . . People and communities, even rough ones, mostly control themselves.”

“If the community will step forward, make its voice heard,” Kennedy says in conclusion, “that means the cops can step back.  That’s as it should be.  We don’t occupy white neighborhoods, we don’t lead with law enforcement there.  The cops play cleanup and step in when the community can’t handle it.  As it should be.”

In other words, poor black inner-city neighborhoods and affluent white suburbs operate on the same social principles.  Like Bill Stuntz, David Kennedy is defending the principle of local, democratic control.  Communities, they believe, can solve most of their own problems if they are given a chance.

One thought on “David Kennedy: how to stop the killing

  1. Reading this, I thot i was back in the fifties, except that gang violence was with sticks and stones, not guns. There were plenty of studies in the fifties about gangs and gang violence. The war on drugs has just made everything worse.

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