'God, It's Got to Stop'

Article excerpt

One man's quest to end gang violence in America.

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. …