By holding a forum between law enforcement and 40 residents with serious criminal histories yesterday, the city took a first step toward addressing the root causes of New Orleans' murder problem, author and Criminologist David Kennedy said at the Loyola University symposium on lethal violence today. The "call-ins" are a key component of Opeation Ceasefire, which Kennedy first launched in Boston.
Kennedy, author of Don't Shoot about his work in Boston, said the call-ins address two issues that contribute to murder.
The first is identifying those people who are most responsible for this kind of crime, which, Kennedy says research has shown is typically a tiny number.
“This is a problem that is rooted in very small numbers of very small groups of very active offenders," he said. And they are loosely organized into groups.
“It is completely unnecessary to get into the question of whether New Orleans has gangs, and whether those are different than gangs in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.” What matters, he said, is that there are groups. “These groups are responsible for a huge portion of violence in these cities.”
Kennedy said of the highest-risk demographic in high-crime neighborhoods — young men — only about 20 percent are associated in some way with actively criminal groups. Of that number, only about 10 to 20 percent are what he called "impact players."
(More after the jump)
Group dynamics tend to lead to poor decision making. Kennedy said this is called “Pluralistic ignorance — where everybody in the group believes something that no one in the group actually believes."
In terms of violent crime: the idea that someone doesn't care or isn't afraid of being caught or going to prison.
“No sane human beings wants to go to prison. But you have to say it, and your friends hear you say it, and everybody thinks it is true," Kennedy said.
He gave an example of starting work at Harvard, and, when a fire alarm would go off, "having to be the first guy in the room who leaves the seminar.” Other faculty members, he said, would look around the room, trying to figure out whether someone else knew it was a drill or a false alarm.
“They would rather risk burning to death than getting up and looking silly," he said.
The second, much larger issue, is a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, which grows primarily out of mass incarceration.
“If you are a black man in the United States, you stand a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison,” he said. “This is a disaster."
People who come out of prison find that they can't find decent employment because of background checks, insurance issues and state statutes prohibiting or limiting trade licensure for convicted felons.
“They come out of prison and they can’t get bonded to be a barber," Kennedy said. “You will never, odds are, get a decent job. You are less likely to marry the mother of your children ... You have less to offer her because you can’t get steady employment.”
The results are devastating to neighborhoods.
“There is a growing and disastrous literature on all of this, but one of my black friends said it best to me. He said, ‘If you want to destroy a civilization, lock it up,’” Kennedy said.
With the "call-in" model, officials identify key people (who may not know how easily identifiable their records make them or that police and prosecutors have been tracking them), let them know that there are resources available to them and give them a warning: the next murder will have consequences, and not just for the suspect. Police will focus their energies on all of a suspect's known associates.
“The point here is to reverse the peer pressure so that the group will police itself," Kennedy said.
It also addresses the trust issue, he said, by bringing in speakers, who, in theory, have more credibility than the police and local prosecutors. For the New Orleans meeting, this was a woman whose son had been murdered.
"At Yesterday’s meeting, a mother stood in front of the group and said, ‘I lost my boy and I am broken ... She meant it literally. The stress of this caused her to have a heart attack," Kennedy said. “She said, 'if you kill another boy in this community, his mother will be standing here. And if you get killed, your mother will be standing here. I don’t think you want that.' And they heard that."
The strategy also acts as a sort of acknowledgement, on the part of law enforcement, that mass incarceration hasn't worked.
“We’re going into communities and saying, ‘We get it. We’re not helping,’” he said. “We don’t want to destroy your neighborhood by locking all your men up. We have a different way of doing this.”