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In 1995, Boston police faced a crisis of gang-related youth homicides. They teamed up with community groups and NIJ-funded researchers to apply an evidence-based, problem-solving approach to the problem. The working group included community-based, street-wise individuals familiar with the local gang culture, such as a police gang unit known as the Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF). The group struggled for months to design, implement and test an intervention; the result was Operation Ceasefire, which reduced firearm violence by 68 percent in one year.
The two main elements of Ceasefire were (1) a direct attack on illicit firearms traffickers and (2) a set of intervention actions that gave gang members a strong deterrent to gun violence. Police placed strong and targeted enforcement pressure on gang members to discourage gun carrying. The researchers called this strategy "lever pulling" and called efforts to spread the word among gang members about increased enforcement "retailing."
Why Ceasefire Worked
The "levers" were the youths' vulnerabilities to a wide range of penalties, from deportation, to going to prison for parole violations, to receiving a sentence for 10 years without parole in a federal penitentiary. Intervention operations involved cooperation between local police and federal law enforcement:
A King [gang member,] stopped one evening by a YVSF officer[,] was carrying a mask, gloves, and a semiautomatic pistol, which he drew on the officer before thinking twice and dropping the weapon. Normally, that case would have been prosecuted by Massachusetts authorities; instead, alerted by the Working Group, the U.S. Attorney took the case. Judges, kept up to date by probation officers, imposed strict bail conditions on Kings arrested during the operation. ATF [U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] agents rode and walked the streets with BPD [Boston Police Department] officers. (p. 34)
A key part of the "retailing" was ensuring gang members knew that the police were cracking down because of the violence and that "if this violence does not stop, you are next."
The Ceasefire researcher team used local crime data, and the whole working group collaborated to ensure that the intervention was carefully planned and executed. Activities and outcomes were closely monitored and continually evaluated, with ongoing feedback from the researchers to the program. If something was not working or was problematic, program design and implementation were adjusted accordingly:
The way the Operation Ceasefire group had imagined working, [a group member] pointed out, was too inflexible for the situations the streets kept putting forward. Some violent or potentially violent situations had to be addressed as soon as YVSF or Streetworkers heard of them: Decisionmaking could not always wait for the Working Group to convene or even consult. At the same time, not all situations and not all gangs seemed to require or deserve a full-force Ceasefire intervention. (p. 42)
This approach is sometimes referred to as "action research."
The main components of the Ceasefire program can be replicated through a dedicated collaboration between local, state and federal partners that is evidence-based, uses proven tactics and strategies, continually monitors progress, and adjusts to circumstances.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award , awarded to . This article is based on the NIJ report Reducing Gun Violence: The Boston Gun Project's Operation Ceasefire.