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David Kennedy '80 Discusses Work on Youth Gun Violence and "Ceasefire"

CommonWealth: Hold Your Fire

David Kennedy is an unlikely figure to be leading the charge on behalf of an innovative policing strategy to combat urban gun violence. For starters, he's not a cop and has no law enforcement background. Though he's a full professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the 54-year-old Kennedy has no formal training as a criminal justice academic, either. What Kennedy does have is credibility and standing that have been honed from the central role he played in the remarkable decrease in Boston homicides and gang violence in the mid and late 1990s.

The drop in gun violence gained national attention, and quickly was dubbed the "Boston Miracle." The label has always bothered Kennedy, for the decrease in gun violence was not the mystical result of any divine intervention, but the product of a carefully thought out and focused strategy.

At the core of the approach, which Kennedy developed with academics and police officials while working at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was a strategy for dealing with gang members that relied on delivering a forceful message that gun violence would no longer be tolerated in the community. The beauty-and effectiveness-of the approach, which has come to be known as Ceasefire, was its limited focus. It was not an attempt to solve the root causes of urban poverty or to turn gangbangers into choirboys. The goal was to curtail the gun violence that was taking so many young lives and destabilizing urban neighborhoods.

Under the Ceasefire model, gang members, many of whom were under some form of court supervision through probation or parole, were ordered to attend meetings where they were met by a phalanx of law enforcement muscle. The gatherings often included not only police, but probation officers and state and federal prosecutors. Also present were clergy and youth outreach workers, who were there to say the community was fed-up with gang violence but also ready to extend a hand with jobs or schooling to those who were ready to put down the guns. The message from the law enforcement crowd: Stop the gunplay or we lower the prosecutorial boom on everyone affiliated with your group the next time there is a shooting that any member is involved in. The poster boy for these efforts became a Boston gangbanger named Freddie Cardoza, a career felon who received a federal prison sentence of 19 years and 7 months, with no possibility of parole, when caught carrying a single bullet.


Ceasefire has been implemented in dozens of cities, often with almost immediate decreases of 25 or even 50 percent in gun violence. But it's not easy to sustain. The effort in Boston fizzled out after a few years, and the same thing happened in many of the other early-adopter cities. The strategy depends on the relentless focus of a large cast of law enforcement and community players, something that Kennedy says requires a full-time coordinator and explicit commitment to its use from everyone involved. Those lessons are now being applied in the 70 cities that are part of the National Network for Safe Communities, a coalition Kennedy co-chairs that consists of law enforcement and community leaders committed to the Ceasefire approach.

Kennedy was shunned by Boston police officials when he publicly criticized the department's turn away from the strategy in the early part of the last decade, a period that saw a significant increase in homicide and gang shootings. He has now been brought back into the fold as a consultant to the department under Police Commis­sioner Ed Davis, who has vowed a renewed commitment to the Ceasefire approach.


Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College, recruited him in 2005 with the offer of a tenured professorship even though Kennedy's formal education ends with a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College. Kennedy is "recognized in our field as one of the original thinkers who's pushing the boundaries of both theory and practice," says Travis.


Last year, Kennedy committed the Ceasefire story to book-length treatment. Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellow­ship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America is part memoir, part criminal justice theory spun in narrative form. Kennedy can come off as brash, and his book doesn't pull punches. He is dismissive of many popular claims about the causes of and cures for gang violence that he says don't hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

"There's sort of a delightful impatience about David," Travis says of Kennedy. "He just wants the rest of the world to see what he has seen. Particularly when you put on top of this description his passion that we're talking about saving lives, saving communities, and restoring communities to good health, there's an understandable impatience that some people confuse with arrogance."

The following is a brief excerpt from a Q&A transcribed in full in the CommonWealth article.

Q: How did you get started in this work?

Kennedy: I got sucked into this whole area essentially working as a journalist. I wanted to be a serious nonfiction writer, but I had a wonderful job at the Kennedy School at Harvard writing teaching cases for the school. In the early '80s and mid '80s I ended up getting tapped at the school by a group that was interested in the then not very respectable idea of community policing. I got completely captured, not by policing as such, but by what the assignments I got showed me about what was going on in poor black neighborhoods all over the country. I found myself walking crack markets all over the country. But over those 10 years that I systematically went to the worst areas all over the country, they weren't getting any better. What that led to in 1994 was a step out of that kind of Boswell role to something that was intended to be more active. Anne Piehl, an economist, and I put together a proposal to the Justice Department to try to do problem-oriented policing with the Boston Police Department around kids killing kids in Boston. Against all odds, the National Institute of Justice funded that work early in 1995, and very shortly after that, Anthony Braga [a Kennedy School criminal justice researcher] and I started working systematically with the Youth Violence Strike Force [the Boston Police anti-gang unit]. ...

Q: There was also something striking about the basis for what was happening, right-the reason for the killings.

Kennedy: Maybe the most unexpected and, again, to my mind, unreasonable thing that they said was that nearly none of this is about money. A big part of this story nationally had been everybody's supposition that these guys are drug dealers, these are drug markets... It's perfectly plausible, it's internally consistent, everybody believes in it, and it just turns out not to be true... Nearly all of the violence is personal. It's vendetta. It's back and forth, patterned, almost predictable violence between these groups. ...

Q: From this very surprising set of revelations about the nature of youth gun violence came an equally surprising approach or structure to deal with it.

Kennedy: We started hearing from the beginning of our time with them about something that they had done in Dorchester that had completely quelled the shooting by one of the most active gang drug crews in the city... Then there was literally one moment when one of the detectives, Fred Waggett, finally made me understand what had happened. What Fred said was: We were putting all kinds of pressure on them, and not just law enforcement pressure... But what he then said was the single transformative moment in all of this, and it has been defining our work ever since: "We told them what it would take for us to stop, and what we meant by that was we were putting all this pressure on them because they were shooting. The Strike Force cared about violence."

... So they essentially gave the gang the tool it needed to make [the intensive police pressure] stop. The price they had to pay for all this special pressure to go back to normal levels was the shooting had to stop... The thing that nobody had thought of was raise the cost of the gunplay to the group to a level that's so high they don't want to pay it... That's what became Operation Ceasefire, the platform for everything else in this whole area that has grown into a kind of school of approaches and a school of thought. It's been used to shut down drug markets. It's been used to stop street robbery, it's being used as a central plank in probation reform. It's being used to control knife crime in Glasgow, Scotland. It turns out to be a very, very powerful and still actively evolving framework.

Q: Ceasefire in Boston was systematized and put into practice in 1996. Talk about what happened then.

Kennedy: In March of 1996, we had the first meeting with gang members at the Dorchester Court, and we explained to a group called the Vamp Hill Kings what had just happened to them-we had orchestrated a very, very intense systematic crackdown because they had committed a bunch of homicides. We brought gang members in who were on parole and probation and from jail, and the street workers and the probation officers just talked some into showing up. We said to them, "This is business as usual. This is the way we are going to respond to violence. Go home, tell your friends, this is essentially up to you now. This is not a drugs conversation, it's not a crime conversation. This is about shooting people. Where groups are shooting people, we are going to focus this kind of intense law enforcement attention." The message was also that the street workers would like to help you; it was not just this iron fist message. The way we came to characterize the message was really simple: We know who you are, we know what you're doing, we would like to help you. We will help you if you let us, and we will stop you if you make us. To our absolute astonishment, that immediately rippled through the city in a way that we could not have possibly anticipated. That one meeting started a big change on the streets. Things got really quiet. It was weird and unbelievable and surreal, but it seemed like something was happening.


Q: You write that a lot of this was serendipity that landed you in this work. But you have really become consumed by and focused by the tragedy of gun violence in poor black neighborhoods. It has really become, in many ways, personal for you.

Kennedy: It absolutely has. Yeah. And it has also for the large and growing community of people committed to this way of thinking about things. It's a group that's intellectually serious about the work-and it has to be done well, it has to be done right. But what's really driving everybody is this core sense of outrage about just how bad it is, and our collective understanding of what's bad about it has expanded well beyond the original focus on people getting hurt, people getting killed. It's mass incarceration, it's these poisoned relationships between needy neighborhoods and people on the outside that honestly are trying to help them. It's the way that alienation continues a toxic American story of race and race relations. It just goes on and on and on.

Q: And you have not just a hope, but a belief based on what's happened, that it doesn't have to be that way?

Kennedy: That's absolutely right. The reason it felt like it was time to write Don't Shoot is because the work and the national experience and the research-it's all gotten us to a point where we really feel that we can say with genuine grounding that we don't have to accept this anymore. There is actually a way out of some of the worst of this. We're far enough along to really know it.

David Kennedy '80 graduated from Swarthmore College with high honors in philosophy and history. He has written articles and editorials for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and has been featured for his work on youth gun violence in The New Yorker and Newsweek. He has recieved numerous awards for his work and advised government organizations including the Justice Department and the White House. He was awarded the Doctor of Laws degree at the Commencement of the Class of 2011.

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