Despite proven success, Project Ceasefire, first trialled in 1996, has been continually cut back, even as gun homicides keep rising
By Bobby Constantino | Originally Published at The Guardian and Observer. Monday 14 December 2015 06.30 EST Last modified on Tuesday 15 December 2015 11.28 EST | Photographic Credit; There have been more mass shootings than days this year in the US. Photograph: Mike Nelson/EPA
Not only are such programs far more successful at saving lives than any combination of background checks, regulations and assault weapons bans, they also don’t invite opposition from gun rights advocates, second amendment groups and the powerful lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association. But rather than expand the programs proven to work, municipalities constantly cut funding in the face of evidence that doing so is a bad idea.
Much like today, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, innocent Americans started losing their lives to gun violence. Beloved gang prosecutors, eight-year-olds sorting Halloween candy, little girls sitting on mailboxes – the carnage was indiscriminate, ruthless. There was national outrage, and calls for firearm bans and strict mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
In response, jurisdictions all over the country passed get-tough gun laws, gang ordinances, three-strikes laws and school zone violations – laws that caused our prison population to explode. In 2002, when the shooting epidemic began to subside, the National Institute of Justice published a study showing that all of those get-tough laws had virtually no preventative impact on gun violence.
On the other hand, experts found, there was a way to shut gun deaths off like a switch. In Boston, where the strategy was first tested, homicides went from 113 in 1991 to 31 in 1999. They called it Operation Ceasefire.
Walk through this door, the men doing the shooting were told, and we will help you get jobs and build a life. But go back out there and keep at it, and you will not like what comes next. After the first meeting in 1996, not a single teen in Beantown was shot to death for 29 straight months. In Chicago gun violence was reduced by as much as 73%. According to a report co-published by Pro Publica and The New Republic last month, the same thing happened in cities all across the United States.
Despite these outcomes, Boston police discontinued the Ceasefire meetings in January 2000. Homicides skyrocketed to 69 in 2001, and up to 75 in 2005. When it became clear that our police stings and aggressive crackdowns – max bail, max jail was our motto in court – weren’t working, I quit my job as a prosecutor in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and started a program that was modeled after Ceasefire across the street from the courthouse.
The guys in my program – mostly former gang members – told us that, when they carried guns, it was because they were hustling for money and in constant danger of getting robbed or shot. We could’ve passed laws with 100-year minimums, outlawed every type of gun (and Boston tried), but it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to our participants because no penalty outweighed the need to eat, pay rent and live.
So we tried a different approach. We helped young men with arrest records pay their court debts, which researchers had determined were a major impediment to rehabilitation, and we helped them apply for jobs. In no time most of them were working in the mainstream economy. Two weeks after the New York Times ran the story that featured one of our participants, Carlos, his neighborhood was raided in a drug sting and the police made 21 arrests.
Carlos wasn’t one of them. He’d been working and steering clear of illicit income for months. Recently another one of our guys, “Suade”, messaged on Facebook that he had just graduated from college. “3s to The Clapham Set”, he wrote, 3s meaning respect for our program because it had helped him land a job.
Sadly, TCS went the way of Ceasefire, and it wasn’t only Boston that axed such programs. Ceasefire’s funding was cut in Chicago in 2007, and again in 2013. In Baltimore this May, after the city had its most violent month since the 1970s, Leana Wen, the city’s health commissioner, had to write a plea begging the public for funding.
Incredibly, though shootings citywide were up 83%, and funding cuts and suspension of staff and services were looming, in three of the gun hotspots where Ceasefire was operating in Baltimore you would have been forgiven for thinking there was no gun violence outbreak at all. According to the Baltimore City health department website, Mondawmin hadn’t had a gun homicide in over a year. Cherry Hill had not one shooting in the month of May. Same in Park Hill.
It’s hard to put a finger on why cities like Baltimore nevertheless spend $400m on police, $5.7m on police misconduct, and $1.5m on Ceasefire when the data shows that shootings were up 83% in police-only hotspot areas and nonexistent in Ceasefire areas. In 2014 in Boston, when shootings jumped 27%, the city allocated a similar ratio, spending $300m on police salaries and $1m on its own equivalent of Ceasefire employees, which the city today calls streetworkers.
A concerted push to scale Safe Streets in Baltimore and Ceasefire in Chicago alone could save as many as 800 American lives annually. Over 20 years, that’s more than 16,000 lives in just two cities.
If we are to believe the true purpose of gun control advocacy is to end gun violence and save lives, then gun control advocates must get serious about embracing what the evidence shows is the best way to do this. Not only will lobbying cities and states to fully fund and scale Ceasefire-like programs save thousands of lives, it will also be much easier than trying to get background checks, assault weapon bans and other regulations past the NRA and through Congress.
Refusing to save so many lives robs the gun control movement of its credibility and sends a powerful message that some American lives matter, and others don’t.
This story was updated on 14 December 2015 to reflect that it’s easier to fund Ceasefire than to get, rather than force, more gun control measures past the NRA.
Bobby Constantino is the founder of a model gun violence prevention program and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at St Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York.
Copyright; Guardian News and Media Limited. Reprinted with permission.
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