Star criminologist hopes to make difference in return to Baltimore

David M. Kennedy's plan to reduce gun violence fell flat in late 1990s

  • David Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
David Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention… (Handout )
February 15, 2014|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

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."

First effort

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.

'Not a theory'

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.

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