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.