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Expert: Engage gangs to fight violence

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Bermuda can change the behaviour of its gang members by warning them about consequences, morally engaging with them and helping them to change, according to a US gun crime expert.

Professor David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told a conference of police chiefs yesterday that those three steps were at the heart of Operation Ceasefire and had helped make cities in the US safer.

“What I want to emphasise here is it’s pretty simple,” he said. “It’s good frontline police craft.”

Prof Kennedy, keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, described the approach as a “street law, old cop, old school, ‘deal with it’ kind of policing” that was very effective.

He said Operation Ceasefire came about in the 1990s after scholars from Harvard University talked to detectives in Boston about how they thought the “appalling” gang violence in the city could best be tackled.

The officers told the researchers: “Every time we lose a kid [to gun crime], we know them personally.” They said there were not many gang members but those involved were “astronomical criminal offenders”.

Unofficial methods for tackling the problem included telling the worst-offending gangs that they were about to receive special attention from police, with all resources focused on their activities, but that if the shooting stopped, they’d be left alone.

“Every time they did it, the shooting stopped,” said Prof Kennedy. “That’s what became known as Operation Ceasefire.

“It can be turned into something very high-level but it came from the streets, it did not come from Harvard University. We would never have thought of this. We learned it from our friends in Boston.”

He added: “It’s inexcusable but we usually think we need to fix the criminal justice system, fix communities, fix families, change youth culture, do something about violence in the media in order to get at this and we don’t. It’s within our grasp.”

Prof Kennedy spoke for more than an hour to delegates from 17 countries, outlining practical methods of warning gangsters about the consequences of their crimes, including using probation meetings to issue a message to one member and ask that it be shared with the rest of the group.

He said gangs typically formed in communities of “historically damaged, deeply disenfranchised” ethnic minorities, with African-American neighbourhoods the worst affected in the US.

“The first thing we all need to face is that white folks don’t live this way,” he said.

He shared figures from Rochester Institute of Technology which show that the homicide rate for blacks in America is 147 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of eight homicides per 100,000 people.

In Rochester’s worst gang area, the “Crescent”, the rate rises to 520 homicides per 100,000 people — or 65 times the national average.

Prof Kennedy, who is also director of the National Network for Safe Communities, said that equated to one in 200 black men murdered every year in the Crescent and an attitude of “I’m going to be dead by the time I’m 25, anyway, what does it matter”?

Money was rarely at the root of any gang rivalry, he explained, with “disrespect and respect” or “boy/girl stuff” more likely contenders.

He said the key to understanding gangs was in grasping “pluralistic ignorance”, that is the group mentality which led members to profess their belief in something they didn’t actually believe in.

“These guys will tell you ‘I don’t care if I live or die, I will do jail standing on my head, I have got my brother’s back, I would rather die than be dishonoured’ and many people think they mean it.”

He said in Bermuda, as in the US, police came across gang members who were “shooting to miss” because they didn’t really believe in the gang ethos and didn’t want to walk around with a “target on their backs”.

The professor said police needed to give gang members an excuse to put down their guns, without them losing face in front of their peers.

He said the moral engagement strand of Operation Ceasefire included: getting communities to feel respected; telling gang members that murder was wrong; using mothers of murdered gangsters to describe the consequences of homicide; and having ex-offenders talk about the real impact of prison.

Helping gang members to change their lifestyle was a “moral and practical obligation”, Prof Kennedy said, even when it wasn’t immediately possible to offer them a job.

“The opposite of shooting is not working,” he said. “The opposite of shooting is not shooting. Most people in most desperate communities will never even consider picking up a gun and killing somebody, so those who do think about that, we deserve to tell them to stop and to protect everybody else from them.”

Prof Kennedy’s visit to the Island this week will include meetings with Government about Bermuda’s gang problem and a look at what is being done here to tackle gun violence, including the Island’s own version of Ceasefire.

Useful website: www.nnscommunities.org

Keynote speaker Professor David Kennedy addresses the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police conference at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess yesterday morning. (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Commissioner Michael DeSilva at the opening ceremony of the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police conference at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess. (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Governor George Fergusson gives his opening remarks at the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police conference at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess yesterday morning. (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published April 30, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 29, 2013 at 8:50 pm)

Expert: Engage gangs to fight violence

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