In a recent column* I described how Boston’s alarming rise in gun violence had motivated the city’s police to invite a group of academics to study the problem and design a program to deal with it.
The professors’ findings surprised the police: the majority of shootings in the city were gang-related, and reducing the violence would require ongoing communication with the gang members, many of whom were carrying firearms simply out of fear.
The resulting program required the involvement of both state and federal law enforcement, community leaders and social workers. They named the program “Operation Cease-fire”.
The first step was to select a gang as the target and “invite” its leaders and most violent members to a “call-in” meeting (the cops and probation officers nearly always possessed enough leverage over the most violent gang members to ensure their attendance, because they were already on probation or parole.)
Each meeting was highly specific; only members of one gang were invited. And the messages were also specific: Your gang is going to be our focus. (1) as long as you continue shooting at people we are going to make your life miserable; (2) if you want to go straight we will give you all the help you need.
And both parts of the message were followed through, immediately and unceasingly. Cars were seized from unlicensed drivers. Outdoor drug markets were raided. Arrests were made for even minor violations.
For those who wanted to go straight, city, state and private agencies offered their help in every way possible, including transportation, medical assistance, training, setting up job interviews, and writing resumes.
For the program to have any credibility, follow-through was critical. It had to be immediate and consistent. The gangbangers got the message when the police arrested a particularly violent member who was on parole. For the possession of one bullet (and because of his previous convictions) he was given a sentence of 19 years.
Did it work? It certainly did. According to the official report:
“Operation Ceasefire was associated with a 63-percent decrease in youth homicides per month, a 32% decrease in shots-fired calls for service per month, a 25% decrease in gun assaults per month, and a 44% decrease in the number of youth gun assaults per month in the highest risk district…”
After the success of the program in Boston, Operation Cease-fire movements sprang up around the nation. Similar programs were created in Oakland in California, Cincinnati, New York City, Chicago and many other cities. In most cases the program worked.
So in 2012 a team was assembled in Detroit. Detroit’s police chief, James Craig, had been chief of the Cincinnati police when Operation Cease-fire substantially reduced shootings in that city. He was therefore an enthusiastic supporter in Detroit from the beginning. The DPD, the U.S. Attorney, community and church leaders, social workers and, crucially, professors and post-graduates from Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice came aboard.
In 2013 they began implementing the program in two adjacent East-side precincts: the ninth and fifth -the precincts with the greatest level of gun violence.
At first the results were discouraging; the program seemed to have little effect. In fact, shootings actually increased slightly. But one of the program’s strengths was its flexibility -its parts could be adjusted to meet local conditions without weakening its core mission. So in the summer of 2015 they re-organized, bringing in new leadership who expanded data tracking, which strengthened the accountability of the project team.
They also increased what they called “custom notifications;” summoning unaffiliated violent individuals in addition to violent gang members to call-in meetings.
Detroit, in one respect, was different than other cities.
In most of the cities where Operation Cease-fire was implemented research found that a relatively small group of youths committed the majority of shootings and most shooters (and victims) were gang members. In Boston only about 1% of young people were gang members but 60% of all shootings were gang related. In Cincinnati .3% of the population were gang members and they committed 75% of the shootings. Findings were similar in other cities.
But in Detroit only 20% of shootings were gang-related. That meant 80% had nothing to do with gangs.
The MSU experts found that after the project’s re-organization, gun violence among 15 to 24-year-olds in the target precincts decreased by 22 percent. They promptly expanded it to the 6th, 8th and 12th precincts.
In 2017 homicides in the 8th precinct decreased 37 percent. Overall, Cease-fire precincts saw a 19 percent decrease in homicides while non-Cease-fire precincts experienced a 4 percent increase, according to DPD statistics. In 2018 Cease-fire was expanded to include the 4th and 7th precincts and plans were announced to take it citywide.
At a January 2018 news conference Chief Craig and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan thanked the partners who helped make Cease-fire a success: FBI, ATF, Michigan State Police, Michigan Department of Corrections (parole officers who required parolees to attend call-in meetings,) and local community groups that ran programs such as job training and education.
Cease-fire had achieved its goal of reducing shootings, but that was not all.
An August, 2019 study by criminologists at MSU and the University of New Haven “found evidence that people involved in call-in meetings in the first three years of Detroit’s program were 30 percent less likely to be re-arrested for any sort of crime for up to three years. The intervention had an even stronger effect on violent criminals, who were roughly 47 percent less likely to be re-arrested for violent crime.” **
It appears that Operation Cease-fire has, indeed , contributed to making Detroit a safer city.
** As reported in “The Trace”, an independent investigative journalism site focused on gun violence: https://www.thetrace.org/2019/11/detroit-focused-deterrence-individual-recidivism/
Lawrence M. Glazer is the author of Wounded Warrior, a biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson, and winner of theIndependent Publisher gold medal in biography. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard. He currently serves on the State Board of Ethics.