FOR THE LAST few years, from roughly the spot on the Venn diagram of intellectual culture where Malcolm Gladwell and David Simon overlap, some intriguing flares have been set off by a crime theorist named David M. Kennedy. Kennedy is most famous for the work he did in the 1990s as the engineer of the Boston Gun Project, which worked to leverage the social dynamics of drug crews (the small, insular circles of adolescent males, goading one another to violence) as a way of severing the ties between the drug trade and gun violence. For quite a long period of time, Kennedy’s efforts seemed to be the major progressive alternative to the carpet-bombing of Giuliani-style law enforcement. Kennedy’s work has spooled out since then, both in focus and in geography, but it has retained the quality that made it attractive to liberal intellectuals. It has retained its hopefulness.
In even the bleakest, most terrorized neighborhoods in the most devastated cities, Kennedy suggests, violent crime and open drug markets are the work of an astonishingly small number of individuals. What’s more, these criminals are deeply rational, and it has likely already dawned on many of them that there must be more lucrative and safer ways to live. Perhaps, Kennedy suggests, the mass incarceration of black American men is not a necessary condition for keeping cities safe, but simply the collateral consequence of a poor understanding of how crime really works. Perhaps reclaiming the ghetto from the drug trade does not require far-off solutions to the education system and the post-industrial economy. Perhaps you merely need to identify—as police in High Point, North Carolina did in 2004—the sixteen young men responsible for the drug market, assemble them in a room at city hall, show them incriminating evidence, and convince them that unless things stop altogether (the open-air markets, the shootings) that they will spend decades in jail, beginning tomorrow. And perhaps, as it did in High Point’s once-desiccated West End, where there has not been a single homicide, shooting, or rape reported since, it will actually work. Perspectives on the ghetto are caught between warring political visions, each of them in their own way equally bleak: Giuliani’s dim, autocrat’s view of human nature from the right, and David Simon’s dim view of capitalist and bureaucratic institutions from the left. Kennedy’s work suggested that optimism was possible.
Kennedy’s new book is a memoir, but it is really a memoir of his work—complicated, iterative, developing over two decades—and the only explicit descriptions of his inner life come in an odd, mildly cringe-inducing five-page passage in which he describes his lifelong insomnia and the personal breakdown he suffered when he tried to control the problem with pills. And yet despite the memoir’s almost ideological disinterest in the character of its subject, an image of Kennedy does emerge, both rather vivid and surprisingly familiar: ponytailed, obsessive, and sleepless; dismissive of the accumulated wisdom of insiders; rigidly committed to his own analytic conclusions, no matter how unlikely or unpopular. Kennedy—in his own account of himself—is a perfect Moneyball hero, so fully formed that one keeps expecting stray characters from the Lewis/Gladwell canon to show up, demonstrating personality quirks and dispensing helpful algorithms.
When such outsider geniuses appear in journalism, they often carry the power of revelation, of a world set on its ear. But when the genius himself is writing the book—outlining the unique terms of his own insight, patiently explaining why everyone else got it all wrong—a few more problems emerge. The effect of the first-person genius account is destabilizing, but it is also deeply engrossing. As Kennedy’s odyssey unfurls across the grimmest ganglands of criminal America (territory controlled by the Vamp Hill Kings, the Taliband, the Rough Tough Somalis), a question arises of whether crime reduction is really as simple as he argues. But there is a second, propulsive question, too, shadowing this one: is it really possible, in such a vast and complicated arena as crime, that an outsider without much experience or obvious genius could see patterns and solutions that tens of thousands in the field had ignored? Is this really how ideas work?
Fifteen years ago, Kennedy was a young academic with a federal grant to study youth violence, and he found himself sitting in a Roxbury muster room talking with the commander of the Boston Police’s gang unit, a lieutenant named Paul Joyce—“strong, silent, shaved head, marathon runner.” Kennedy’s prose can lapse into a pseudo-proletarian tough guy posturing (“Crack blew through America’s poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had traded their steeds for supercharged bulldozers”), and in Joyce he found an authenticity he admired.
He also found the beginnings of an idea. After the crack epidemic, Joyce explained, the essential criminal unit was no longer the individual. It was the drug crew. Kennedy writes: “Every time a kid gets killed, we know them, from the streets, [Joyce] said. They’re gang members, they’re drug dealers, but almost none of the violence is about money: It’s beefs, disrespect, boy-girl stuff.” The urban crime epidemic had been treated by both liberal and conservative scholars as “huge, amorphous, deeply rooted,” Kennedy writes. “Nobody, anywhere, was saying what Paul Joyce and his people were: This is about a small number of very exceptional kids whose names we know doing things we understand pretty damned clearly.”
To the academic Kennedy, immersed in policing theory, this insight had a particular urgency, and relevance: it suggested that deterrence, the Holy Grail of policing, might be possible. One reason that policing, in contemporary America, does not deter crime is that each individual criminal act carries an infinitesimally small risk of imprisonment (one in fifteen thousand, in the case of cocaine sales, scholars have found). But as Joyce’s men drew maps of gang territory across Boston, and as they identified, each week, the particular feuds between rival crews, the criminal universe began to seem smaller, more manageable. You couldn’t credibly threaten a dealer with jail every time he sold drugs. But Kennedy wasn’t focused on drugs—he was focused on violence. There were only a few hundred violent gang members in Boston, and Paul Joyce’s team knew them all. What if you could figure out a way to bargain with the whole group?
The worst drug crew in Boston, in the spring of 1996, was called the Vamp Hill Kings. Kennedy had backing from the Justice Department, and soon Joyce’s task force was keeping up a constant vigil against the gang. The INS deported the Vamp Hill Kings who were in the country illegally; the ATF agents sauntered through the streets in full regalia; the MSPCA even took away their pit bulls. One police officer stopped a Vamp Hill King in the middle of the night: “gun, gloves, and face mask: assassination kit,” Kennedy reports. After six weeks, the cops summoned the Kings and their family members to a church, promising no arrests. “We’re not here about the drugs,” they were told. “We’re here about the shootings.”
This was Kennedy’s and Joyce’s great bet, that if you were prepared to push the law to its limits, and explained exactly what you wanted, the gang members would be rational and accept a truce. At city hall prosecutors explained exactly what the Kings faced, given federal sentencing guidelines. One notorious local thug, a kid named Freddie Cardoza, had just gotten nineteen years and four months for possessing one bullet. The Kings’ ministers, invited, told the gangsters that the community expected more from them; counselors held out the promise of a job. The next day one of the Kings visited his parole officer to check his record against Cardoza’s, to see what kind of time he might be risking. Vamp Hill, that summer, was silent. “Revelation: The gangs were rational,” Kennedy writes. “They listened, they learned, they responded. They changed.”
Within six months, Kennedy’s group had moved the program, now called Ceasefire, around the city, quieting violent gangs. “The streets,” Kennedy relates, “were spooky calm.” On the wall of their headquarters, they had a month-by-month tally for citywide murders of people less than 24 years of age, a crude way of measuring their impact. In 1995, there had been 45 young people murdered in Boston, an annual tally that had held more or less steady since crack took hold, five years earlier. In 1996, after the Vamp Hill session, the number was 24; by 1997, as the program spread, it was down to 15. “They called it the Boston miracle,” Kennedy writes, a little grandly. “We took it on the road.” Ceasefire was soon endorsed by the Justice Department, and the Boston program had been replicated in Minneapolis, Salinas (California), and Indianapolis. A small bit of celebrity came included: one day Kennedy found himself leaving an MTV anti-violence forum to travel to a Congressional subcommittee hearing.
By 2004, as the road show descended on to High Point, Kennedy had adjusted his aims, though not his tactics. Now they weren’t asking the drug crew just to stop shooting, but to shut down the open-air markets, and the chaos and fear that accompanied them. Having realized the depths of distrust of authority in the black community, Kennedy had embarked upon his own bit of liberal evangelism, and he encouraged both police and community leaders to openly discuss their racialized views of one another. But the basic insights that had begun in Vamp Hill had not changed. You did not need to fix the country in order to fix crime.
Kennedy has a kind of Taylorist vanity: the idea, for him, has an essential perfection about it. When the National Academy of Sciences only cautiously endorses his program, he is derisive. An exasperated, score-settling strain runs throughout Don’t Shoot—Kennedy takes issue with the black ministers and the Harvard public health scholars who tried to take credit, independently, for the Boston miracle. When his program failed to take hold in Cincinnati and Baltimore, he blames the bureaucratic politics of those cities. “I know we can control the bad guys,” Kennedy concluded after his program failed to take root in Baltimore. “I don’t know how we can control the good guys.” There is a narrow, sniping aspect to these defenses, the suggestion that when his ideas have failed to work it is because only a bastardized form has been tried. But Kennedy’s vigor here is understandable. Though there are limits to what Kennedy’s programs can do, and though we can’t yet know for sure whether the local bargains Kennedy makes have not simply shifted violence and drug markets elsewhere, the evidence has begun to mount. It seems that the programs really do work.
Genius is often over-theorized. Having realized these methods hold a special power, Kennedy begins to wonder what might happen if they were expanded into distant fields. He suggests at one point that this model of bargaining might reduce domestic violence, though he does not explain how. Kennedy talks himself into the suggestion that these matter-of-fact conversations between cops and criminals and community leaders might produce the seeds of a lasting racial reconciliation. This is the vogue, to think that brilliant insights hatched in one field (epidemiology, financial markets) might have natural applications elsewhere (marketing, baseball). What is brilliant about Kennedy’s work is its specificity, its insistence that street violence has its own special contours and patterns that can be understood, and manipulated, and that crime is only about crime.
There is a scene in Don’t Shoot where Kennedy, already a decade in to his experiments, presents his methods to a skeptical room full of North Carolina cops. “Basic rule of talking to cops,” he writes, “Nobody moves a muscle until they know what the senior officer present is thinking.” Kennedy clearly has a thing for cops, and throughout his book (and to his credit) the academic tries to suggest that his ideas were always hiding in plain sight, that cops were simply waiting to be asked, if only their bureaucracies could be torn down, if only the cops in the back of the room would speak up. But the Moneyball story is the introduction of one privileged class into an arena that has been dominated by another. The cops always knew that a few assholes were doing all the shooting. But it took a ponytailed, tightly wound liberal academic to realize that maybe those assholes weren’t beyond hope, that maybe crime itself could be bargained with.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and Rolling Stone.