It is rare that while reading a book I immediately want to go out and buy copies to distribute to others. But David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America is so powerful, so convincing, and ultimately so important that anyone working to curb violence and open drug dealing in urban neighborhoods must read it. What separates Kennedy from so many other anti-crime strategists is that he has been down in the trenches in some of the toughest neighborhoods in urban America and documents what works and what does not. He names names, calling out academics for false analyses and public officials for their ignorance and hypocrisy. It is like a nonfiction account of The Wire, with Kennedy as the Freeman character who knows what works but has to struggle to get the best strategies implemented. He describes it as obscene that violence and open drug dealing are allowed to damage urban neighborhoods, and Kennedy shows that ego driven public officials are often the main obstacles to change.

Everyone feels they know the “answer” to urban crime. Progressives focus on jobs and social services, while others favor longer prison sentences, “stop and frisk” harassment, and a “lock ‘em up” approach. David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and a key figure in the National Network for Safe Communities, knows better. He sees progressives promoting long-term solutions that fail to address ongoing violence and drug markets, and everyone else promoting an incarceration strategy that has clearly failed.

Kennedy’s core message is this: identify the groups that are really behind the drugs and violence, and then use a coordinated criminal justice and social service response to let key leaders know that there will be maximum penalties for continuing such activities.

Sound too easy to be true? That’s part of Kennedy’s problem, as he describes the skepticism he confronts in city after city despite the success of his approach in Boston, North Carolina, Stockton, CA and other cities.

Lack of Public Coordination

Kennedy sees the biggest obstacle to reducing violence and open drug sales in low-income communities as a lack of coordination among public officials. His approach requires that the U.S. Attorney and other federal law enforcement officials join local police forces, sheriffs, and judges in a concerted strategy of targeting and sanctions. Community representatives are key, but they typically support efforts to end violence and drugs in their neighborhoods so its not as if they are obstacles to public action.

Why would law enforcement officials not coordinate? If you watched The Wire, you know the answer. Law enforcement bodies want to choose their own priorities rather than feel subservient to a broader multi-agency, multi-pronged strategy. A strategy promoted by “outsiders” like Kennedy, and whose payoff credits several agencies rather than a single politician or official, is disfavored. Because Kennedy’s approach requires federal prosecutors to crack down on street dealing (a typical local concern), many resist.

Remember in The Wire when McNulty kept trying to get his friend in the U.S. Attorneys office to help bring down drug kingpins? And the friend did next to nothing before getting redirected to homeland security? That’s what happens in the real world. Kennedy’s depiction of dysfunctional law enforcement coordination in Baltimore, as well as the attitude of Mayor and then Governor O’Malley, explains why drugs and violence in Baltimore persist.

Kennedy’s strategy focuses on explicitly laying out the sanctions to the groups and key leaders primarily responsible for neighborhood drugs and violence. Meetings are held with these key figures who are told in no uncertain terms that they will be held personally responsible for actions of their subordinates. Kennedy notes that many dealers are not even aware of the powerful federal penalties for drug sales, and that after a few leaders are prosecuted federally similar such activities sharply decline.

Instead of this strategic, psychological approach, many mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys and U.S. Attorneys prefer mass arrests of low-level dealers. This approach has failed to reduce drug markets or violence, but looks good on computstat. The sanction and deterrent strategy – which often includes photographing drug transactions and then telling the offender that the evidence won’t be used unless they are caught again – has a proven track record that Kennedy describes in city after city.

“You Can’t Do Anything About Drugs”

Kennedy’s goal is not to eradicate violence and drugs from society; he knows that’s not going to happen. Rather, he wants to rid low-income neighborhoods of the public violence and drug dealing that undermine its quality of life.

Nearly one year ago we tried a version of Kennedy’s approach (though I had never heard of him) on the first block of Turk Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. My organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, conducted a study that found violence and crime dramatically higher on this block than in the rest of the city and neighborhood. After the study was released, we hired Buck Bagot to develop a strategy to reduce the public drug dealing that dominated that block.

Bagot brought together all of the city law enforcement agencies to create a coordinated response, and it worked very much like Kennedy would have predicted. Crime and violence declined greatly, though the sheer volume of problems on that block made it hard to notice the difference. We did not have the resources to get the feds involved and our funding for Bagot’s coordination soon ran out, but reductions in violence and drug dealing on lower Turk remain. It really becomes a question of redirecting resources in a more strategic way, rather than pouring billions of dollars into crackdowns that fail to make a difference in the neighborhood.

I’ve worked to reduce crime in the Tenderloin since 1985, and am often told that if we stop dealing on lower Turk or another block, “they’ll just go somewhere else.” Kennedy notes that this view is widely held, and that law enforcement believes it with a “religious fervor.”

But guess what: research says otherwise. As Kennedy notes, “Research says that displacement is rarely absolute, often minimal, often reversed, that things get better around the area of intervention.” But as he notes, it doesn’t matter what happens in real life, “the conviction is total. They’ll just move.

Kennedy provides dozens of examples where folk wisdom about crime is wrong, yet dictates policy.

Kennedy is so passionate about our ability to end open drug sales in places like the Tenderloin that public officials should be held accountable for not implementing his strategies. Every community claims to be “different” from the places where drug dealing and violence were reduced, yet the similarities between neighborhoods afflicted by these problems are great.

Kennedy’s breathless enthusiasm for improving neighborhoods is infectious. I challenge any reader to dispute his conclusion that ridding communities of public violence and drug dealing can be done. I end this review with the last sentences of this remarkable book, which really captures Kennedy’s inspiring message:

We sit down, we talk to each other, we say how it’s going to be, and we do the work. It’s not a miracle. It’s work.

Time to go to work.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses failed neighborhood anti-crime strategies in The Activist’s Handbook.