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Nationally recognized gun violence expert Daniel Webster discusses Baltimore’s implementation of Operation Ceasefire and suggests policy measures to ensure long-term success

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: So what you describe with the call-ins and the services and the community involvement, that sounds an awful lot like Operation Ceasefire, which was implemented again last year. And I believe last June, June 2014, it was relaunched in the city. DANIEL WEBSTER, PROF. HEALTH POLICY, JOHNS HOPKINS BLOOMBERG SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: That’s right. NOOR: So talk about exactly what Operation Ceasefire is. I mean, we know it was started by David Kennedy in Boston in 1990s. It was tried in Baltimore in the ’90s, but the effort was abandoned, and what the initial–from what you understand, what the initial results of have been of Operation Ceasefire. WEBSTER: Sure. So this program model, again, it comes from this focused deterrence model. It starts with an examination of the data. So, first it was implemented in the Western District in Baltimore. And before they did anything, there was a careful examination. Okay, what does violent crime look like in this community? Who are the key individuals who are suspects or previously convicted of violent crime in that area? They look at intelligence. They look at a variety of kind of information to identify who are the important people, because, again, maybe the most important piece in the grand scheme of things is this idea that you don’t have to have really broadscale aggressive policing on everybody to have a big impact on violent crime. The data suggest that you can, when applied appropriately, really pay very close attention to small number of individuals driving the crime. So that was that initial process. NOOR: And they say, like, 0.5 percent of the population. WEBSTER: That’s been David Kennedy’s sort of rule of thumb when he’s looked at other cities. Whether that is applied, that ratio holds for Baltimore specific, I’m not going to say whether it does or it doesn’t. I’m not sure. The fractions are a little less important than just the general idea that, again, you can pay attention to a much smaller group of individuals if chosen correctly and the intervention applied correctly and have a bigger impact, because I’ve been studying gun violence for almost 25 years, and one of the most unique things about it is it really looks like a contagious process. That’s one reason why public health and public health models are very relevant to both understanding the problem and figuring out what to do about it. So what this focused deterrence model, the ceasefire program, after you identify who these individuals are, you come with credible ability to use the criminal justice system to come down on them if they’re violent. But that’s not really the purpose. The purpose is behavior change. We want to stop the violence. And there are these complementary strategies with services offered and other community voices to encourage a shift from violence to nonviolent lifestyles. It has been implemented in the Western District. Following implementation, there was a pretty significant reduction homicides. This was over a very short period of time. NOOR: And I’ve seen it between 40 and 50 percent is what’s been reported. WEBSTER: Right. So that’s a big change. It’s also a very short period of time. So I tend to want a little more data as a researcher to have a final determinant. What is the impact of this program? Violence is a cyclical process in many communities, in Baltimore and elsewhere. Again, that sort of goes with this same sort of contagious phenomenon. It follows sort of classic epidemic curves. There’s the measles outbreak now, and the rate of infection goes up very rapidly, and then it cycles down. That’s very characteristic of so many infectious processes. And we see the same sort of thing going on with violence. So, temporarily things look very good in terms of the impact in the western. But I think it–I will need more data before I can say, oh, this is a success. Now they are poised to move and expand this intervention over to the Eastern District. These are the two districts with the highest rates of gun violence. So it’s sort of understandable why they chose those two areas as points of intervention. NOOR: And they’re both geographically fairly small, so it’d be easier to focus on these areas. WEBSTER: That’s right. That’s right. So it’s understandable how they’re going about it. The concern, I think, in the short-term right now has been is there a full commitment to this model, aside from the law enforcement criminal justice piece? I think there are many service providers, for example, who are saying, wait a minute, there’s more money for the law enforcement side of this. If you want us to be a part of the solution, part of this program, why aren’t we getting extra resources, extra help? In the western there are some outreach teams connected to safe streets. And we can talk about safe streets in just a minute. But really they cover a very small little area. So I would argue, and I think if David Kennedy, the author of this program, was here, he would say that you get far better outcomes when you have effective street outreach teams that continue to reinforce this message that is given in a very powerful way in these call-ins or notifications to offenders. But when you’re trying to change behavior, rarely is one delivery of a message enough. You need someone who is reinforcing things on a regular basis. And that is why outreach is important. And we haven’t invested on that side in the way that I think we could or should. NOOR: And I think that is a critical point, because you look at the Eastern District, that’s right next to Johns Hopkins. So services are there. And I think it’s worth exploring this further, because the services are there, but it’s really about connecting these individuals with these services and making sure they follow through and take advantage if they are going to break these behaviors. WEBSTER: Right. So I think services can be important. And, clearly, more than anything, many of these individuals need a reliable source of income and jobs. So that is something that you can’t wave a wand and that immediately is all settled. I think that you can begin to assist individuals in that path, but expect that they’re going to need a variety of kind of supports as they transition from one lifestyle, hopefully, to a lifestyle that does not involve crime and violence. So it requires investment. And that’s what I’ve been a little disappointed in for this city. I think without question–Baltimore has many strengths. It’s a great city. I think without question one of the biggest challenges is our problem with violent crime. And for the city to grow and thrive, we have to have a lower crime rate. We need to have fewer homicides, fewer shootings. And just as we invest in economic development or any other things, we need to invest in public safety and to do that in a way that is not exclusive just to people with badges and guns and people incarcerating individuals. I think we need to invest–those individuals–don’t get me wrong–effective law enforcement is central. If you don’t have that, you will not have a safe city. So we need that. But I think we have given a huge social problem and said, police, go solve it for us. And they do what they can do. That’s if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so that’s how we’ve approached violence for way too long. Just we’re going to come with the law enforcement. But all the research suggests that the most effective public safety strategies is the combination of deterrence, focus, focused deterrence on enforcement, with complementary behavioral interventions and strategies that support a long-term behavior change. And that’s what this is. It’s a behavior that we’re trying to curb. NOOR: And do you feel there are risks with only–you know, that’s what we’ve also heard from people in the community is that only the enforcement side is being funded. Is there a risk? Because these communities already have lots of law enforcement. So what you’re saying is you’re giving more law enforcement, but you’re not really giving the carrot, you’re not really giving the people an effective way to get out of that. WEBSTER: Well, this is what I would say is if they’re truly doing this in a focused way and they are focusing on the individuals driving the violence, I’m not losing too much sleep if they put some people behind bars who are shooting people. Okay? I’m okay with that. But again, in terms of the most effective strategy, you’re going to have less gun violence if you have the support of outreach, of support of available services to those individuals. And I think it could lead people just in a very cynical view of is Baltimore really serious about this, are they really serious about implementing a strategy. They brought David Kennedy here with a very effective model. I have a great deal of respect for David and his work. Let’s do that justice. Let’s do the full complementary model and make this work in a long-term way rather than just in a short-term way. So I think that I’m glad that we have the ceasefire program. Preliminary data look promising. But I think we’re going to have much bigger longer-term impact if we invest in all aspects of the solution, not just the focused law enforcement. NOOR: Okay. Well, we’re going to wrap up this part of our conversation. But I do want to give you an opportunity to talk about Operation Safe Streets. I think that’s a really interesting, fascinating model that we’re going to be doing reporting on, and it’s where you have ex-offenders going out into the community, literally preventing violence from happening by–you’ve seen it on the documentary The Interrupters, where they go in and they put themselves in these situations and they prevent killings and violence from happening. So, hopefully you can join us for that part of the conversation. WEBSTER: Okay. NOOR: Alright. Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.


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Daniel W. Webster, ScD, MPH is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where he serves as Director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research and as Deputy Director for the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, one of six such centers funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is also affiliated with the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Division of Public Safety Leadership at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Webster is one of the nation’s leading experts on gun policy and the prevention of gun violence. He is a widely sought out source of information and insight on the topic for news media, policymakers, and public safety officials.