Talking about turning lives around

April 10, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

HARVARD UNIVERSITY criminologist David M. Kennedy devised an approach to gang violence in Boston that many credit with cutting that city's murder rate from 96 to 35 in four years. Over the past 18 months, he has been working on a similar plan for Baltimore, a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach that involves community leaders, police and offenders alike. He shared some of his views in a recent interview with Sun editorial writer C. Fraser Smith.

What is the plan?

What we are really trying to do is change the dynamic: to alter this self-sustaining culture where violence is expected as the norm. Once you do that you can have a new equilibrium. What we've found elsewhere and what I'm convinced we'll find in Baltimore is that you can use the power and promise of special law enforcement to calm the streets. Then you have streets where people know you don't do violent things.

Then people, including chronic offenders, can step away from this piece of their lives that individually they don't like but individually they can't fix.

You and Operation Safe Neighborhoods seem to have found a well-rounded team approach -- using even the offenders.

It turns out that law enforcement and community people and service providers can get together on a stand that says, "We'll help anyone who's willing to take help. And we will hold accountable anyone who engages in violence. We won't let you down, but we won't let you slide."

One of the striking things about working with the community -- and in an unusual way with offenders -- is you're not just processing and going after them, but having a close but principled relationship with them. This was at the core of what happened in Boston. It gives the community a chance to take a stand that's very important to it.

It turns out that communities feel very, very deeply that this violent misbehavior and the drug activity has to stop. You could see it in the passion with which it was said by people in Park Heights (the first target neighborhood in the project). There are strengths there, some institutional, some individual.

Do you think strength is always there, even in the most depressed and violent neighborhoods?

The community feels two things very strongly: This violence has to stop and not because someone outside says so, or because 300 murders is too many, but because it's a matter of cultural and community survival. At the same time, they feel equally powerfully that it has to stop in some way that salvages as much as possible of the perpetrators.

If all those young men go to federal prison, that's a tragedy. It means they're not there in the community to work. They're not there to be sons and daughters, husbands and fathers to their children. Still some potential there. Again the community feels very strongly about that. And so do a lot of people in law enforcement.

The place where there's absolutely perfect agreement among law enforcement and the community--and the and offenders - is that the killing should stop.

But don't you find some people want to give up, saying things like "we've been lecturing these guys forever"?

No one has ever to talked them. They've been processed. People say, "They're just stone killers."

There is some truth to the sociopathic idea for particular people at particular times. But it's not nearly as true as the stereotype would have it. When you talk to these offenders, if you talk to [them] one-on-one, behind closed doors, where they can speak safely, invariably one of the strongest things is how scared they are.

They're scared and they're carrying guns, and the rules say if you disrespect me, I have to behave in certain ways or I'm going to go down. It doesn't mean they're upstanding citizens, but it also doesn't mean they're so far gone they don't care about themselves and their kids and their own survival.

Were the police receptive to your approach?

A lot of people in law enforcement said you just can't do this. They are so lost you can't even get them in the room. People on the community side said the same thing: They won't show up. But [when the Park Heights plan was discussed with the offenders at the Wabash Courthouse] in walked 27 probationers. It was a securable facility in the area, and it had the right kind of [law enforcement] resonance. They came in and they came in and they sat and they listened. They asked questions and things have been pretty quiet.

But no one's naive about what we're dealing with.

In a sense, you're operating as Project Exile does in Richmond, sending out a message that doing violence will get you a big prison sentence.

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