Cincinnati is front and center for a large part of a book that recently was published as its author, criminal justice expert David Kennedy, visits here Oct. 11.
Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End to Violence in Inner-City America is one-part memoir and one-part academic report, filled with the sort of social science material that theses are based on. In all, it details Kennedy's efforts to reduce inner-city violence, once known as "Ceasefire," beginning with the "Boston Miracle" — the mid-1990s effort to curb gang violence in the East Coast city — to drug crime reduction in High Point, N.C., and ultimately, to the Queen City, where Kennedy was a principal in the founding of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in 2007.
But excerpts of Kennedy's book, released last month, have caused a bit of controversy locally.
In them, Kennedy details the initial hurdles in getting a foothold in Cincinnati, including the "pettiest" politics he has faced to date. ("Cincinnati's politics would turn out to be far from the worst I'd ever seen, but they were without question the pettiest," he writes.) From City Council funding turf-wars to a skeptical police administration, setting up CIRV was difficult, says Kennedy, now the director of the Center on Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Then-Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr, was initially resistant, Kennedy says. (He thought CIRV was "idiotic, doomed," reads the book.) Meanwhile, Streicher's second-in-command, Lt. Col. James Whalen, dismissed the effort with "Social people hug thugs. We kick their butts."
City Council quibbled over funding and who would be in charge of the program, and early leadership of CIRV ran into political speed bumps, themselves. (Dr. Victor Garcia of Children's Hospital Medical Center, who was instrumental in forming CIRV, was later dismissed from its leadership after flaps with Kennedy and City Hall.)
"Coming in, I had people tell me that it was going to be hard working with the people in Cincinnati. There was going to be plenty of politics," says Kennedy, who spoke with CityBeat in preparation for a book-singing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood on Oct.
"Cincinnati's a large part of the book — Timothy Thomas is in the first sentence of the introduction, and it all comes back to the first conversation I had with Mayor Mallory — but I didn't write all of those things to take a shot at the city,” he says. “It was to set the story of what happened. Despite political resistance, despite the skepticism of law enforcement and despite the history of cities that have entered into it half-heartedly and saw it fall apart ... for all of that, Cincinnati stepped up and took it seriously."
Nowadays, Kennedy uses Cincinnati as a national model for other cities considering similar efforts. He's disappointed that CIRV has seen its budget cut, however. Citing the city's $51 million deficit, the city cut CIRV's funding by nearly $550,000 this year. Boston, one of Kennedy's early successes, similarly cut funding for its "Ceasefire" programs in later years, despite its success — the U.S. Justice Department cited a 63 percent drop in youth homicides, among other gains. When Boston cut its funding, those numbers again rose.
That may be happening in Cincinnati, where shootings seem to be on the upswing and the family of one man thinks their loved one may still be alive if not for the cuts. Donelle Johnson was shot and killed in May in the West End, a month after getting out of prison. Once released from prison, his family says, Johnson reached out for help from CIRV, but couldn't get in contact. Where Cincinnati once had 16 case workers on the streets every day, cuts have lowered that number to five. The CIRV office, once open at almost any hour, is lightly staffed and often closed.
That has Kennedy concerned.
"We proved it in Cincinnati: CIRV works. It saves lives and keeps people out of prison,” he says. “If a city says this is important and not just a side project, you can hang onto those successes.”
Otherwise, fatal shootings and violent crime may rise again.
"Nobody in my world, and me least of all, can look at an increase and afford to shrug it off," Kennedy adds. "We always worry about it. People who work in the field, especially police who have been around dead bodies for a long time, can't afford to say it's not a big deal. One body is a big deal."
The good news, Kennedy says, is that once CIRV has been implemented, it's easier to get stem the increases because believers are already on the ground. And with Streicher, now a staunch advocate for the program, most police are more receptive.
"(Streicher) has become one of our bigger supporters, because he's well-known in the police community and he's an old-time, no-nonsense kind of cop,” Kennedy says. “He talks to people from all around the country and says to them 'Look, I know what you're thinking because I thought that, too.'"
CIRV-style programs are being launched throughout the nation with the help of advocates like Streicher, according to the author. He cites a 10-city project in California that lowered fatal shootings in Sacramento's worst neighborhood to just one a year after Ceasefire was started. Meanwhile, the drug trade in West Charleston, Fla., has been nearly eliminated under the program.
The book, he says, is just the latest step in spreading the word.
"For a long time, the most important thing was doing the work on the ground and making sure it works. We had to figure out and understand the torrent of new understanding of what was going on, doing the formal social science work and making sure the evidence was there," Kennedy explains.
During a meeting with several people last year, Kennedy made the decision to write the book.
"Boston and High Point and Cincinnati were the first, and they get more attention, but there are successes that are as good or better throughout the country now. That was something we needed to get out there," he says. "It was time to go to a wider audience and say — this is the core message of the book — you may think you have to live with these problems and you may think nobody knows what to do about them. But we don't have to live with them. We do know how to fix the problems."
(David Kennedy will sign and discuss Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End to Violence in Inner-City America at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion.)
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