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In the early 1990s, Boston was stunned by an increase in youth homicides. Using sophisticated data analysis, Harvard University found a strong illicit gun market providing firearms to youth, an overwhelming majority of whom were also associated with gangs that primarily lived in three neighborhoods. Through a cohesive community effort, the city implemented a prevention strategy called “Operation Ceasefire.” Also known as the Boston Gun Project, Operation Ceasefire serves as a model of problem-oriented policing by directing attention to a specific crime problem, particularly gangs and their leaders who were at the heart of the gun violence. The Boston Gun Project has been replicated in several other major cities including Los Angeles and Minneapolis and is regarded by community leaders, criminal justice officials, and academics as the “single-most influential criminal justice project of the last twenty years” (Walker, 2015, 274).
In order to interrupt the pattern of increasing youth violence during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boston implemented a problem-oriented policing strategy focused on reducing youth homicide [and victimization], especially those committed with handguns (Braga, Kennedy, Waring, & Piehl, 2001).
The central hypothesis of the Boston Gun Project Working Group was that “a meaningful period of substantially reduced youth violence might serve as a “fire-break” and result in a relatively long-lasting reduction in future youth violence” (Braga et al., 2001) The working group anticipated that by interrupting the cycle of youth engaging in self-protective behavior such as “gun acquisition and use, gang formation, and tough street behavior” (Braga et al., 2001), risk of victimization and violence would decrease.
In general, Operation Ceasefire is regarded as a deterrence strategy (Braga et al., 2001). Deterrence Theory is the philosophy of criminal justice arising from the notion that crime results from a rational calculation of its costs and benefits, thus enforcing the concept that crime can be prevented when the offender perceives the costs of committing the crime to outweigh the benefits of committing the crime (Braga et al., 2001). This pulling-levers approach tried to preclude gang violence “by making gang members believe that consequences would follow on violence and gun use and choose to change their behavior” (Braga et al., 2001).
The framework of this intervention included problem identification, analysis, response, evaluation, and adjustment of the response (Braga et al., 2001). Using this structure, the working group created customized interventions designed to reduce youth homicide victimization and “other forms of nonfatal serious violence” (Braga et al., 2001). The strategy targeted all regions of the city with documented issues of severe youth violence – there were no control areas (Braga et al., 2001).
Operation Ceasefire encompassed: (1) an intense crackdown by law enforcement on the criminals who were putting guns in the hands of youth, and (2) an attempt to curb gang violence (Braga et al., 2001).
Research suggests that Boston’s youth homicide prevention program was very successful (Braga et al., 2001). Braga and his colleagues (2001) reported the following: “Not only was the intervention associated with a significant reduction in youth homicide victimization, but it also was associated with significant reductions in shots-fired calls for service and gun assault incidents” (Braga et al., 2001). Notably, between 1991 and 1995, “Boston averaged 44 youth homicides” (Braga et al., 2001). According to analyses, “In 1996, the number of Boston youth homicides decreased to 26 and then further decreased to 15 youth homicides in 1997” (Braga et al., 2001). Remarkably, in the first full year after Operation Ceasefire was implemented (1997), Boston reported the smallest number of youth homicides [yearly total] since 1976 (Braga et al., 2001).
- Los Angeles – The Mob Crew & Cuarto Flats
On October 8, 2000, law enforcement officials reported that several known associates of the Cuatro Flats gang open fired on members of a rival gang, The Mob Crew (TMC), killing one TMC member and a 10-year-old girl who was riding her scooter nearby (Tita, Riley, Ridgeway, & Greenwood, 2003). The Hollenbeck area of the city of Los Angeles where the heinous act occurred is infamous for crimes involving firearms and violent gang assaults (Tita et al., 2003). This event initiated a mediation known as Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles (Tita et al., 2003).
In recent decades, Los Angeles’ countless attempts at combating gang violence had failed; therefore, city and county officials deemed the Boston’s Operation Ceasefire model a possible solution. However, researchers recognized Los Angeles was dealing with different problems, consequently, the kinds of interventions had to be different. So, the city hypothesized they could reduce gun violence by pairing levers with prevention services.
Tita and his colleagues mentioned several factors contributing to the variation of intervention between Boston and Los Angeles. Some of the differences between the two cities included: (1) size and staying power of gangs, (2) race/ethnicity of gang members, (3) geography, (4) politics.
From Boston, Los Angeles embraced a spin-off of lever pulling called “sticks” and “carrots.” Sticks were an array of penalties or “levers” (e.g. saturation patrol) used to encourage gang members to abstain from violence by holding all members liable for violence committed by any one of them (Tita et al., 2003). Carrots were the prevention element of alternative services. In other words, this was a community effort to intervene early in the lives of at-risk youths by providing them with alternatives to violent behavior (Tita et al., 2003).
Immediately following the incident in October 2000, police increased patrols around the homicide site (Boyle Heights) for the next several weeks. Law enforcement tried to locate gang members “who had outstanding arrest warrants or had violated probation or parole regulations” (Tita et al., 2003) In addition, gang members who failed to abide by public housing regulation or neglected to pay child support were also targeted (Tita et al., 2003).
Researchers mentioned several other forms of intervention too. Two examples include: (1) increasing patrol in a housing complex that was a “hotbed” of Cuatro Flats activity, and (2) “inspections by health and child welfare agencies of properties where gang members congregated” (Tita et al., 2003).
The community also sent the message that they would provide services to gang members promoting alternatives to violent behavior (Tita et al., 2003).
Though the intervention did not progress precisely as it was intended, the results from the components of the police force were unexpectedly satisfactory. According to Tita and his collaborators (2003), “In the area of Hollenbeck where the two gangs were the most active and enforcement was most intensive, both gang crime and violence crime fell.”
- Los Angeles – Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips
An FBI gang task force in South Central, Los Angeles believed members of the Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips gang were responsible for a “large portion” of violence in the South Division of the Los Angeles Police Department (Ratcliffe, Perenzin, & Sorg, 2017).
After evaluating 20 years of multi-agency anti-gang initiatives including Boston Ceasefire and Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), researchers noted a lack of contribution by the FBI. Thus, they hypothesize if federal law enforcement takes a lead role in the intervention, there will be a significant decline in calls for service following the takedown, ultimately leading to a reduction in gang crime (Ratcliffe et al., 2017).
Ratcliffe and his colleagues (2017) claimed, “The theoretical mechanism to achieve a safer community is the dismantling of a gang thus rendering them ineffective, either through incarceration of the whole gang or by ‘eliminating the leadership structure.’” Moreover, this theory is supported by a study from Block (2000) which cited a strong correlation “between the number of gangs in an area and the general level of criminal activity, and areas with increased numbers of gang members have increased rates of gun assaults. . .” (Ratcliffe et al., 2017)
“Operation Thumbs Down” worked to identify members of the Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips. For over a year, the task force conducted covert surveillance on its members utilizing investigative tools such as wiretaps and proffer agreements, to build a case against key members of the organization, specifically those in leadership positions (Ratcliffe et al., 2017). On August 29, 2013, LAPD initiated a takedown.
The outcome of the intervention denotes a “statistically significant reduction in violence of a little more than four violent crimes per month in the gang area, translating to a 22 percent reduction” (Ratcliffe et al., 2017).
Historically, Minneapolis has had a very low homicide rate (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). However, between 1994 and 1995, “the annual number of homicides increased dramatically from 59 victims to 97 victims” (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). In reaction to these unparalleled surges, a faction of the community – known as the Minneapolis HEALS Initiative (Hope, Education, Law, and Safety) – enlisted the help of researchers from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and Harvard University to examine their homicide problem and design proper preventative strategies (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). Partners of the Minneapolis HEALS Initiative attuned themselves with the Boston project, but “their concern was with homicide “as such” – regardless of the ages involved – rather than youth homicide” (Kennedy & Braga, 1998), a crucial deviation from the Boston framework. Community members and officials alike deliberated over whether the city had a gang homicide problem. Moreover, they questioned the number of gangs and gang members, and discernable conflicts between them (Kennedy & Braga, 1998)
Experts presumed “homicides were concentrated among young, minority males in a few disadvantaged neighborhoods; many homicide victims and offenders were active, chronic offenders; and the city’s sharp increase in homicide was being driven by a kind of drug and gang activity quite new to Minneapolis” (Kennedy & Braga, 1998).
In 1958, Marvin E. Wolfgang published Patterns in Criminal Homicide. He analyzed 588 homicide case files from the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Squad. He made some of the following observations about the basic characteristics of homicide: (1) “victims and offenders tend to be youth, black, and male; (2) alcohol is often a factor in homicide events; . . . and (3) a relatively high proportion of victims and offenders have prior criminal records” (Kennedy & Braga, 1998).
Since its publication, Wolfgang’s research has been confirmed by several other academics and supports the central hypothesis of the Minneapolis working group.
The working group – comprised of various players of the criminal justice system at the local, state, and federal levels – employed a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to establish a clear understanding of the homicide problem in Minneapolis. Official statistic databases in Minneapolis supplied ample amounts of information regarding the basic traits on the occurrences of homicide and participants (i.e. race, location, weapon) and the criminal histories and previous interactions with the criminal justice system of victims and offenders (Kennedy & Braga, 1998).
Two populations were examined: (1) 264 individuals who had been killed in Minneapolis between January 1994 and May 1997, and (2) one of 238 individuals who were arrested by the Minneapolis Police Department either for or suspected of, killing those individuals (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). By employing the assistance of MPD gang officers, the department tried to assess whether the occurrences were connected to gang activity: whether the victim was affiliated with a gang and whether the driving force behind the incident was allegedly connected to gang activity, or whether the offender was affiliated with a gang and whether the driving force behind the incident was allegedly connected to gang activity.
The results indicated that the homicides were grouped in a few neighborhoods – the majority of which were disadvantaged (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). A considerable number of both victims and homicides arrestees and suspects were male and a minority, especially African-American (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). Kennedy and Braga (1998) also noted an important youth component. Plus, in approximately two-thirds of the homicides, firearms were used (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). There was also a strong correlation between victims and offenders and the likelihood of having an extensive criminal history.
Concerning the question of the extent of gang membership in Minneapolis, “the Minneapolis Police Department identified from their gang-tracking database some 32 active gangs with about 2,650 members” (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). At the time, the Gangster Disciples were categorized as the biggest gang [1,400 members] (Kennedy & Braga, 1998). Further research suggested the age of gang members ranged from early adolescence to young adults [between 14 and 24 years] (Kennedy & Braga, 1998).
- Critical Analysis
The Boston Gun Project contributed to the field of policing in a number of ways. A few examples include:
- Fighting A Supply-Side War
According to “The Police in America” by Samuel Walker and Charles Katz, the analysis conducted by Harvard researchers led participants of the Boston Gun Project “to believe that a successful response would have to include an attack on both the supply and demand for guns” (Walker & Katz, 2013, 335). Here, the underlying assumption is that our problem is coming from other places. In other words, the problem is not that juveniles are killing each other (increasing youth homicide rates), it is that they are killing each other with firearms. The logic follows that if we can reduce the supply of guns on the street, the youth homicide rate will decline. If you reduce the supply, gang members won’t be able to find guns. Moreover, if we drastically reduce the supply, the price will increase. Soon, gang members will stop committing violent crimes, specifically with firearms, because they will not be able to afford/purchase one. The idea is that violent gang members will abstain from committing crimes and new (young) gang members will be deterred from committing crimes or even joining the gang in the first place. An example of this tactic would be crackdowns. This coincides with problem-oriented policing because executing crackdowns involves assigning several officers to a small area and asking them to patrol aggressively. In the short term, this can be very effective. However, you cannot keep fighting with supply-side tactics because you will lose. If you implement crackdowns, eventually the gang members are going to know you’re there (in the neighborhood) and they will go somewhere else, causing a displacement effect. The key to the problem is getting demand down, which is based on the notions stipulated in Deterrence Theory.
- Deterrence Theory
In the broadest sense, deterrence is the attempt to discourage criminality through the use of punishment. The mechanism typically takes two forms: specific deterrence and general deterrence. Specific deterrence implies that punishment should be inflicted on criminals to discourage them from committing future crimes. On the other hand, general deterrence is the idea that most people are deterred from committing a crime when they see that punishment follows the commission (Braga et al., 2001).
In the sense of the Boston Gun Project, “making gang members believe that consequences would follow on violence and gun use and choose to change their behavior” (Braga et al., 2001) is an example of deterrence. However, this theory assumes that offenders are rational and that they will weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime before engaging in criminal activity. This implies that we make decisions by determining how likely something is to happen, judging the value of the outcome, and then multiplying the two. But, it is vastly important to consider that criminals are not logical.
- Crime, Fear of Crime, and Resident Satisfaction with the Police
Due to the success of the project, youth homicide rates decreased. Consequently, fear of crime – specifically by residents in problem neighborhoods – decreased, and the number of residents who believed the police could prevent crime increased (Walker & Katz, 2013, 335).
- Other Factors
Though no other programs compared to Boston were implemented remotely close to this time period, other factors could have been associated with the reductions in youth homicide and gun violence such as employment rate, street-level drug activity, and change in population. For example, if someone is employed, it can be speculated that they are less likely to engage in criminal activity. If they are unemployed, they don’t have anything to do and could turn to the gang to fill the void. Also, perhaps during Operation Ceasefire, Boston was experiencing a decrease in the number of youths in the population.
- Definitional Issues
It is important to consider definitional issues. For example, according to Kennedy and Braga (1998), “Los Angeles police define crime as gang-related when gang members participate, regardless of motive.” Tita and his colleagues are the only researchers who addressed gang definitions. If law enforcement does not have a concrete definition for what constitutes as a “gang,” how can they determine whether or not a crime is gang-related.
- Policy Implications and Direction for Future Research
Based on the results of the Boston Gun Project, the federal government funded a large number of similar projects in communities across the country in an effort to respond to gun crime. While the goal of Operation Ceasefire was to get guns off the street in Boston, I do not know how deeply they delved into the root cause of what was happening – race.
Law enforcement and members of gang communities sat down together and discussed what would happen if the gang members kept offending. They told them they had to stop, and if they didn’t they were going to have a swift punishment. Law enforcement officials encouraged gang members to understand that if they did not offend, the community would be a better place. Later, trust was rebuilt in these communities because violence decreased. To some degree, this is a model for the kind of conversation that needs to be had about race. Hopefully, from these conversations, something will emerge.
Boston was a model for a conversation on race. However, they did not have a race conversation. They had conversations around race, but they really did not dig into the topic. When you look at what is going on in the country, you can talk about there being bad blood in a lot of cities and the Boston Police Department; all police departments, actually. But, there are also some good relationships. Then again, there are problems in our cities where young men of color (and women) are killing each other. And when you go back to the beginning and analyze the relationship between the police and young people or the killing, it boils down to having a lack of opportunity in several ways.
There is no question as to whether or not we have to fix these broken relationships. We’re doing a lot of things in Boston and because of this we are cognizant of that factor – we are going to have race dialogues. But really, it is about giving young people the opportunity to be successful. Any of the young kids that are apart of violence or are creating violence in the city dropped out of school – there is no future for them. They don’t have the opportunity to receive job training, they are not on the pathway to college, so we have to focus on changing the culture and mindset to give young people these opportunities. For example, you do not have to have a college degree to work construction. If Boston implemented a program that provided onsite job training, they could be providing youth with a way out of poverty and crime.
So, when we talk about the relations in the city, whether they are police-community or not, it is deeper than that. Someone that would be in the position to implement something like this would be mayors, Senators, or Congressmen. We would have more at our disposal if all of these parties were at the conversation table. The young people also need to be at the table for this conversation, and some of them should have an open mind about the conversation because it’s about dealing with the past but also moving forward. We need to hear about what’s wrong with the police process now, but we also need ideas on how to move forward.
Braga, A. A., Kennedy, D. M., Waring, E. J., & Piehl, A. M. (2001). Problem-Oriented Policing, Deterrence, and Youth Violence: An Evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 195-225.
- Kennedy, D. M., & Braga, A. A. (1998). Homicide in Minneapolis. Homicide Studies, 263-290.
- Ratcliffe, J. H., Perenzin, A., & Sorg, E. T. (2017). Operation Thumbs Down. Policing: An International Journal, 442-453.
- Tita, G. E., Riley, K. J., Ridgeway, G., & Greenwood, P. W. (2003). Reducing Gun Violence: Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles. National Institute of Justice’s Reducing Gun Violence, 1-23.
- Walker, S. (2015). Sense and Nonsense About Crime, Drugs, and Communities. Stamford: Cengage Learning.
- Walker, S., & Katz, C. M. (2013). The Police in America: An Introduction. McGraw Hill.
 The second element came to be known as the “pulling levers” strategy. This involved dissuading chronic gang offending by communicating with members directly, overtly stating that violent behavior was prohibited, and standing behind that message by “pulling every lever” lawfully acceptable when violence happened (Braga, A. et al., 2001).
 An ongoing program that involves US Attorney’s Offices working with state and local agencies focused on gun crime reductions [from “Operation Thumbs Down.”]
 Minneapolis Police determined whether a homicide was a gang-related incident by following the formal protocol set by the department.
 Law enforcement agencies in Boston increased the cost of gang-related violence; a deterrence strategy.
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