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The gangs of Boston

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 15, 2013 12:12 PM

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In the 1990s the Boston Police Department launched Operation Ceasefire, an innovative program aimed at curbing gang violence in the city. The program worked—or so it seemed—and shortly became a model for cities around the country.

But more than a decade later a trio of researchers at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard began to wonder: Was Operation Ceasfire really responsible for the 63 percent decrease in youth murders that had occurred by the time the program was ended in early 2000? Correlation does not equal causation and the evidence that Operation Ceasefire had really achieved what people said it had achieved was thin. And given the program’s outsized influence on gang violence prevention initiatives around the country, the researchers thought it was especially important to find out whether it really worked.

As a paper they published in the March issue of The Journal of Quantitative Criminology explains, they got their chance to test Operation Ceasefire in 2007. In January of that year, Edward Davis, the newly installed Commissioner of the BPD, decided to reinstate Operation Ceasefire following a surge in gang-motivated killings. And when he did the researchers—Anthony Braga, David Hureau, and Andrew Papachristos—were right there to gather the type of rigorous data that researchers had missed out on the first time around.

As a program, Operation Ceasefire was straight-forward and in-your-face, and could have served as the premise for a season of The Wire. In the 1990s, fewer than one percent of Boston kids were in gangs but gang members were behind more than 60 percent of the city’s youth murders. So, the BPD thought: Why not go hard after the small number of gang members responsible for such a disproportionate amount of the violence?

Operation Ceasefire began with “call-ins,” in which the BPD brought in known gang members and told them that things had changed. The BPD explained that whenever the gangs members committed violent crimes, the police would make their lives miserable every way they could—a strategy that came to be known in the law enforcement world as “pulling levers.” Gang members are often exposed to the law on multiple fronts, and the BPD told them that they’d crack down on probation and parole enforcement, push for tougher plea bargains, higher bail terms, stiffer sentences, and focus even more resources on the day-to-day drug and gun trades. But if the gangs abstained from violence, the BPD promised they could expect things to stay as they were, with no special dispensations from the law, but no excess scrutiny, either.

The researchers compared pre- and post-Operation Ceasefire violence statistics for 19 gangs targeted by the program and 82 gangs that were not. They also took pains to eliminate from their study any gangs that were socially connected with the targeted gangs, because they were concerned (from a methodological point of view) that those gang members might have changed their behavior simply as a result of hearing what was happening to gang members elsewhere.

And when the researchers ran the numbers they found that, indeed, Operation Ceasefire was working as well as people hoped it was. From 2006-2010 shootings among the 19 targeted gangs fell three-times as fast as shootings among non-targeted gangs—meaning Operation Ceasefire gang members were both less likely to shoot and less likely to get shot at.

For academics, it’s always less exciting to come up with results that validate rather than contradict conventional wisdom. But in this case, the Operate Ceasefire research helps to put some statistical meat on the bones of a much-ballyhooed program, while providing an opportunity to update one of the most interesting crime fighting stories in Boston over the last two decades.

The Globe has covered Operation Ceasefire extensively over the years. One place to start reading is this column from October 2011 called "Expanding the Boston Miracle.'"

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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