'God, It's Got to Stop'

David Kennedy. Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images

I got the call from Cincinnati in the fall of 2006. The city had rioted after the killing of an unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas. He'd been stopped and arrested for trivial stuff, over and over and over; finally he ran from the cops, got shot, and the city burned. In Over-the-Rhine and other hot neighborhoods, the police drew back. Gunfire picked up. Drug dealing became hotter and even more brazen. On the next to last day of 2001, the year of the riot, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a map of gunshot victims in the city. There had been 61 homicides in the city—up from 40 the year before.

The body count continued to climb. 2002, 66. 2003, 75. 2004, 68. 2005, 79. And over 1,600 gunshot woundings.

The city had had enough. In April of 2006, under newly elected Mayor Mark Mallory, the police department returned to what was, in effect, pre-riot operations. It included a crackdown in Over-the-Rhine that generated more than a thousand arrests in a month. More than 700 were for Timothy Thomas–style misdemeanor offenses. The citywide sweep eventually totaled some 2,600 arrests. It didn't work. The year would end with 89 homicides, more than double than before the riot, and a historic peak for the city. Shootings of children went up 300 percent.

Over the speakerphone from his office in late 2006, Mallory said to me, Is this true? This thing that I've been hearing about, it will really bring the killing down? Yes, I said. And keep people out of prison, and heal the wounds between your police and your community. We know how to do this. I promise you it will work. I'll introduce you to people who've done it; they didn't believe it either, they've seen it, they'll tell you. I can give it to you, I promise. But I can't keep it for you. You have to keep it.

I flew into Cincinnati. After making Ceasefire work in cities like Boston, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, I knew we could do it again. Ceasefire was basically simple–have law enforcement, community elders, and social-service providers sit down and talk with the gangs and drug crews that drove the shooting. The community said that the violence had to stop, the providers offered help, and the cops promised that the first gang that killed someone after the meeting was going to get all their attention. Repeat as necessary. In Boston youth homicide went down by two thirds in a matter of months; we'd had basically the same results all over the country. But Boston, and a lot of the other cities, had let it fall apart. The people on the ground in Cincinnati—the cops, prosecutors, community activists—would have to own it.

Central to everything else was identifying the city's violent groups and looking at homicides to see what was happening. I was in a meeting with Police Chief Tom Streicher and one of his top people, Lt. Col. Jim Whalen, to get the reviews set up, and said to Streicher: Your street guys are the experts, we need you to get them together so we can debrief them, this is how we always start, all of the rest of it depends on getting this right.

We went district by district with the officers reviewing 83 killings between June 2006 and June 2007. Sixty-seven groups, about a thousand people, were connected as victims or offenders or both with about three quarters of all the killings in Cincinnati. Classic patterns of rivalries and alliances. My colleague Robin and her University of Cincinnati team keyed out about 650 of them who were known by name and ran criminal histories. They averaged 35 prior charges apiece, about seven-and-a-half felony charges apiece. All thousand or so group members represented about three tenths of 1 percent of the Cincinnati population.

As in Boston, Minneapolis, Baltimore, everywhere else, law enforcement had both known this and not known it. The street cops knew it about their own areas, their own groups, their own offenders, not necessarily about other areas and people. It never made it out of their heads, never made it into departmental intelligence or understanding, didn't affect policy or operations. Streicher and Whalen turned out to be of that exceedingly rare category of human being who can look at new facts and say, I've been wrong. They got why Timothy Thomas policing didn't work, couldn't work, why the zero-tolerance nonsense was never going to work. "How do you want to run a police department?" Streicher would later say. "Do you want to go out every day and arrest 50 crackheads with 50 crack pipes and fill up the court system?" Whalen looked at the beefs that flared across the network map and thought, That's why working corners doesn't work. "We go to an area after a shooting, the seven guys in that set aren't stupid, they're not going to be standing there," he said. "And if we do arrest the right guy, the guys his crew is fighting with are still across town somewhere."

On July 31, we had our first call-ins, almost 60 gang probationers and parolees between the two groups, at the Hamilton County Courthouse, a couple blocks from City Hall and at the edge of Over-the-Rhine. Streicher didn't much like the look of the offenders in front of him but he'd promised me he'd talk to them in a new way, and he did. "I don't hate you because of what you do or what you've done," he said. "I don't want you to hate me because of what I do or what I've done ... What we do want is an opportunity, an opportunity for change, and that's what you're going to hear about today."

"I'm here because, it may sound foolish, God loves you, and so do I," Dr. Victor Garcia said. "I'm a surgeon at Children's Hospital. As a surgeon, should you come to the hospital, regardless of who you are or what you've done, I will take care of you as if you were my brother. But you're here today because of a crisis that we have in our city, a crisis that affects us as human beings, and because of me, as a black man, it's a crisis that affects us as a race. Before you, you have representatives from law enforcement, you have representatives from community services, you have representatives from the community itself. This meeting is not about you. It's about an important message that I'm asking you as a surgeon ... to listen to what is going to be told to you today. You're all going to go home. And I want you to take what you hear back to the people that you run with.

Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy. Copyright 2011 by David Kennedy.

"The killing has got to stop. We are doing more harm to ourselves than the KKK has ever done. You think about that. For the first time in history, we as a race are potentially coming to an end because of what we are doing to ourselves. It's got to stop. God, it's got to stop."

Carla McNeil. Mother of a murdered child. Contained. White pantsuit. She brought a photograph of her son, Jeremy. He was a good kid, she said, barely able to get the words out. Quiet when he was young, generous, when he got older he gave all his toys away to the little boy next door. Wise.

I want to tell you what it was like to find out that he was murdered, she said. It had been back in 2001, during the time of the riot, and she wanted to make sure he was safe. In two weeks he was going to get out of Cincinnati, join a Job Corps program, and learn to be a computer technician. But he went missing for days.

"I heard the brakes of the car, I went outside on the porch, and they ran up the steps. They said, 'Carla, you remember when you said you saw that body they pulled up yesterday on the news? It was Jeremy.'

"I lost it. I screamed. I could not believe it. Because that was the very day he was supposed to leave to go to Job Corps in Indianapolis. I just knew he was going to make it out of here." She was sobbing and talking at the same time. He'd been killed, thrown behind Dumpsters on the street, and left there for days. He was so badly decomposed she didn't even get to see him one last time.

"I don't hate you guys," she told them. "I don't hate you. I love you. Sometimes I see people from the back, you know, their head's shaped like Jeremy's, their walk's like Jeremy's, I imagine it's Jeremy. So think about it. For your mom, your dad, your people."

Most of the gang members had tears streaming down their faces.

We did what we said we would do. Gang members who called the service line got GED classes, drug treatment, job training, and job placement. Four gangs that killed someone got special law-enforcement attention. We had a second round of call-ins in October, explained it all.

And Cincinnati went quiet.

The graph of gang homicides shot downward—the city ended the year with overall killings down 24 percent, the biggest annual homicide decline since 1991. It looked just like the other cities where Ceasefire had worked. Gang killing continued to tank; Robin ran numbers in the spring of 2008 showing that since the October 2007 call-ins, when the message punched through, gang homicides were down 60 percent. It didn't work perfectly—there was strife among our own group, there were flare-ups with more killings, but the city owned the program like no one else had before.

Now, nearly four years later, homicide's down in Cincinnati, gang homicide's steady at about a 41 percent reduction. It's not good enough, not close. But we're in motion. Whalen is doing home visits on impact players, visiting them on their street corners, sending a cop and an ATF agent in full fed regalia. We're here because your group's hot and we don't want to have to come down hard, they say. They bring the group's intelligence folder, leaf through it, let the guy see his picture, his boys' pictures, surveillance photographs. They watch for the spikes, go do the home visits, shootings come right back down.

Not everybody gets how Ceasefire works or even likes it. One problem is that it's too simple, seems too good to be true. It's too far away from how we think about issues like gang violence, the old conviction that they're huge, massive, tectonic, need huge, massive responses. It strains credulity that one-hour meetings can cut homicide in the worst places, that five years after the meeting it's still changing the lives of gun criminals. It doesn't change anything else—or so it seems—doesn't fix the economy or the criminal-justice system. There are too many data points now, too many evaluations, all the cities where it's worked, all the closed-down drug markets. It's getting harder to say, on principle, That can't work. Resetting community standards, undoing toxic norms and narratives, getting the community and the police on the same page, is real change.

It's still not welcome, in some quarters. It's too soft for some, too hard for others. There's the camp that believes in individual accountability, thinks crime is about bad character and bad choices, society has to take a stand about right and wrong. There's that in what we do—We'll stop you if you make us—but it's not just that. It means that it doesn't work to say, any longer, Those are terrible people, hold them accountable, lock them up. There's the camp that believes in social accountability, that society has to take a stand about what it has done to troubled communities. There's that in what we do—We'll help you if you let us—but it's not just that. It doesn't work to say, Those people are victims, they're not responsible, they need programs, support.

The old duality is simple, and it may be comforting, but it's wrong. We need to find a new, more complicated logic, and we have. It's a logic that says no amount of law enforcement will ever work, that law enforcement as we've been practicing it is part of the problem. It's a logic that says no amount of traditional social investment will ever work. It's a logic that says, someone can be doing terrible things and still be a victim; someone can have done wrong and still deserve help; someone can have been the victim of history and neglect and it's still right to demand that they stop hurting people. Not even remotely radical ideas: a good parent says, all the time, You've broken the rules, and I'm going to do something about it, and I love you and of course I will continue to care for you and hold you close. But radical when it comes to talking about crime, where commitment to accountability seems to crowd out room for caring, and commitment to caring seems to crowd out room for accountability.

It's a logic that says, especially, none of us is without sin here. We have all created this. We cannot look at anybody else, any of the other communities involved—the cops, the neighborhoods, the street guys—and say, You change. This is on us, all of us. We all have to change.

And on the ground, all over the country, we are.

Adapted from Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy. Copyright 2011 by David Kennedy. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.