Book Review: Don’t Shoot

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a book on the blog before — maybe this prior post would qualify — but I recently finished Don’t Shoot, by Paul David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. It’s available on Amazon here, and I thought that others might find it interesting.

Kennedy has worked with police departments across the country for several decades, initially trying to devise strategies to reduce gun violence, and later trying to address open-air drug markets, which he views as a critical blight on inner-city communities. At least to hear him tell it, his work has been successful on both scores. At a minimum, it has been very influential. The $2 billion federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods is based, at least in part, on his ideas.

Some of Kennedy’s most famous work has been here, in North Carolina, especially in High Point. In collaboration with others, Kennedy devised a strategy of building federal drug cases against the most active dealers, then calling the dealers in to a meeting with police, showing them the evidence, and telling them (1) that if they kept dealing drugs, the police would arrest them based on the evidence they already had, and the dealers would be sent to prison, but (2) that if they stopped dealing drugs, social service agencies would help them change their lives. According to Kennedy, the strategy totally shut down High Point’s notorious drug markets without requiring many arrests, and without creating a vacuum to be filled by new dealers. In this report, he summarizes the strategy and its subsequent implementation in other cities.

Kennedy’s work to reduce gun violence doesn’t have the same connection to North Carolina, though some of his theories, first developed and tested in the Boston Gun Project, have been implemented here. His basic analysis of the issue is as follows: most urban gun violence is committed by, and against, a very small number of criminally-involved young men. Although most of those men are involved in gangs that sell drugs, much of the violence results not from turf battles or other business affairs, but from personal feuds about girls and “respect.” The violence is supported by street culture — by peer pressure to respond to perceived slights with bullets. That peer pressure towards violence, according to Kennedy, can be reversed, can be turned into peer pressure against violence, if the police can talk to the groups involved and credibly threaten to come down hard on every member of a group if any member of that group commits a shooting. Dealing with groups rather than individuals, and trying to pull levers of rationality for those groups, are the keys to Kennedy’s plan for reducing gun violence.

Because his solutions to both drug markets and gun violence involve focusing on a small number of known or suspected offenders, Kennedy’s work is viewed as a targeted, perhaps even “progressive,” alternative to zero tolerance policing, frequent stop and frisks, and massive arrests. (The latter model is frequently associated with New York City, and former mayor Rudy Giuliani.)

Although Kennedy cites data supporting the efficacy of his interventions, I admit that I’m not completely sold. First, the data isn’t always robust. Homicides are comparatively rare even in the most dangerous cities, and there is considerable year-to-year fluctuation in homicide rates. Against that backdrop, and given the overall reduction in murder rates over the past several decades, it is hard to be sure that the reductions cited by Kennedy are significant. Second, even if the benefits of his strategies are real, they seem to be difficult to sustain. They may suffer from the pilot program effect, working when they are new and exciting and receiving the focused efforts of the very best people in the community, but failing to work when the bloom goes off the rose. Third, there are some seeming incoherencies in his analysis. For example, he claims that urban homicides are very difficult to solve – and indeed, are rarely solved – yet his strategy of coming down hard on the perpetrator of any shooting and all his friends requires solving the homicide and identifying the perpetrator.

Still, the book overall is pretty convincing, and for the most part, it’s well-written and engaging, too. I would be interested in hearing from those who have worked with Kennedy or any of his projects. Have they worked? Are they still working?

Finally, I’ll add that I found the book inspiring because it’s about an academic who didn’t lose his connection to, and interest in, the real world and its problems. We try to remain grounded in reality here at the School of Government, but Kennedy, working out of windowless police stations and walking the streets of Baltimore and Compton, takes engaged scholarship to a whole different level. If you can think of ways that the university can help solve real-world criminal justice problems, let me know. We’ll do our best to help.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Don’t Shoot”

  1. When I was in Winston-Salem. I worked with Rob Lang who took a job as a AUSA in the Middle District of N.C. before I left there. He is a good friend of mine and he was the AUSA who helped develop and implement this “program.” Rob took part in the “lectures” to these future defendants. Rob is smart, funny and animated and he would re-enact some of his lectures for our pleasure. He raved about how successful their efforts were and proud to be a part of it. I have no doubt that it works but only if the right people are executing it. They must be able to back up what they say.

    I think Rob spoke about this program at our conference 4-5 years back and it would be great to have him back. (Jeff-I’m sure he would love to talk to you about this).

  2. The approach advocated by Kennedy tries to get the community involved in changing attitudes about what is accepted behavior and thus getting the people involved with the violence and drugs to change rather than focus on making arrests. He also advocates working with people who want to chance and actually helping them change. Too often the approach seems to be targeting low level street dealers which does not reduce the amount of drugs on the street and does not lead to working their way up to the suppliers. There are headlines about drug arrests. Some people get felony convictions which means they are not likely to get a good job if they want to chance. There is not much help for people with drug problems.

  3. I am constantly amazed at how some academics can fool an awful lot of people and for liability purposes am not implying the author of the aforementioned book is in any way reporting uncorroborated information. I was a cop and now an academic. I don’t trust any statistics or findings since they can all be manipulated and unless you have the raw data (thats even suspect) it could be the blind leading the blind. The only program I have ever read that involves lowering a crime rate without causing some displacement is the cleanup of NYC by Guiliani and Kelly back in the 90’s. Consequently, program evaluations must be cautiously looked at due to the benchmarks, stockholders and financier. There, I have said my peace!

  4. Jeff,

    I applaud you for letting others in the court system know about this book. I not only read it when it first came out, but I purchased 10 copies and have required every ADA and VWLA in my 40 person office to read it. We are working hard in the Fifth District to implement the focused deterence model and Don’t Shoot gives a good account of what is possible when everyone gets on the same page.

    I published an article this summer in the Wake Forest Law Review called “Community Based Prosecution: An Inside Out Approach to Doing Justice at the Courthouse, on the Street and in the Classroom.” A large section of the article talks about the third rail topic of race and justice and disporportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system. I cited to Mr. Kennedy’s book in my article because I believe it is on the mark with his full exploration of this topic–elevating it from a political issue to a moral one.

  5. Thank you for the review. A couple of clarifications; the author of the book is Mr. David Kennedy. Project Safe Neighborhoods is not a “program”, but a federal initiative. There are numerous PSN initiatives across the state of North Carolina that continue to sustain what was started by our North Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Offices. Our county currently has a successful PSN initiative of six years. It would be a great idea for Asst. US Attorney Rob Lang to talk with Mr. Welty about the work that continues to be done to reduce gun and gang violence in North Carolina. Much more has happened over the past 5 years. It’s also true… these initiatives survive when leaders make a committment to do what it takes to execute the strategy through cooperation and collaboration.

  6. David Kennedy here.

    Thanks for the review, Jeff.

    Don’t Shoot is not an academic book, but all the studies cited are sourced in the endnotes. Since it came out, the key evaluations have been collected and systematically reviewed by the Campbell Collaboration:

    They show a steady record of significant impact.

    You’re absolutely right about the sustainability question. Fortunately, as agencies and cities take these approaches more seriously, the record there is getting much better. (High Point has in fact been a national standard-setter on this front; there’s a delegation in town to study what they’ve done as I’m writing this.) Rob Lang has indeed been at the center of both the North Carolina and national work, and I’ll see that he sees this.

    Professor Swanno, I hope you were a better cop than you are an academic. Judging by this post, that wouldn’t have taken much. Before you snark about others lying, and before you teach, do the reading. If you had, you would know that what criminologists call “diffusion of benefits” – the reverse of displacement, with other areas getting better – are as or more common than findings of displacement. Studies of the “High Point” drug market intervention are finding such diffusion. (Also, the 1990s crime decline in New York that began under Giuliani involved several NYPD commissioners, but not Ray Kelly, and it’s “piece,” not “peace.”)


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