Challenging Dogma - Fall 2009

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Boston Miracle: A Step, Not a Solution – Annette G

The intent of this paper is to critique The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire public health intervention and offer theories on why aspects of the approach were flawed. Suggested alternatives to the intervention will be discussed as well as the applicable supporting social and behavior science principles.

The Climate within Boston in the 1990’s
Like many large cities in the United States, Boston experienced an epidemic of youth homicide between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Homicide among persons ages 24 and under increased by 230 percent – from 22 victims in 1987 to 73 in 1990 – and remained high well after the peak of the epidemic. (6) Boston experienced an average of 44 youth homicides per year between 1991 and 1995. (6) Although 1990 marked the peak, the problems continued. Youth homicide rates remained at historically elevated levels and the streets were unsafe. In 1992, gang members invaded a memorial service of a rival gang member at the Morningstar Baptist Church and attacked mourners with knives and guns. (6) In a 1995 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey of 10 cities claimed 15 percent of Boston’s junior high school students sampled said that they had avoided school in the past month because they were scared – the highest such response rate among the cities surveyed. (6)
In early 1995, the National Institute of Justice provided a grant to fund the Boston Gun Project. The effort was initiated and guided by David M Kennedy, Anthony A Braga, and Anne M Piehl from the John F Kennedy School of Government within Harvard University. With cooperation from the Commissioner of the Boston City Police Department, the project was initiated to create an intervention via a problem-oriented policing initiative directed toward the issue of youth violence and homicide in Boston.

The Research
A working group was formed to research, evaluate and provide guidance on the strategy for the intervention. The group was diversified and included representation from Boston Police, The Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF), Department of Youth Services (DYS) personnel, probation officers, school police, the US Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Suffolk Country District Attorney, the Boston Regional Office of the ATF, and Streetworkers. The Streetworkers were City of Boston social workers whose goals were to connect the most at risk youths to available services and mediate disputes. The Ten Point Coalition, a group of black ministry formed after the attack at the Morningstar Baptist Church, participated as well as members from the John F Kennedy School of Government.
At the beginning, the initial thought process was that the problem could be tackled from two perspectives – the supply side and the demand side. Gun trafficking and other illegal means of acquiring firearms were considered the supply side while fear and other factors on the streets driving youth to acquire firearms would be considered the demand side. The data and research delivered from the Working Group forced a different view. The real problem was violence among chronic gang-involved offenders; it was mostly but not exclusively firearm violence and it wasn’t predominately juveniles but also offenders well into their 20’s. (6) Most of the incidents were not about drug trafficking or other business as initially thought. They were more personal and reflected long standing feuds between gangs. These conclusions forced the group to focus on the demand side of the equation.
The Working Group started to focus on a historical police intervention that was driven by the YVSF targeting a gang on Wendover Street. It first appeared to be the classic crackdown strategy – one that put all attention and resources on the problem of gang violence in the Wendover street area and didn’t stop until peace finally resulted. There was one unique difference in the Wendover approach versus other crackdowns in the past – communication. The YVSF communicated clearly to the gang on Wendover Street why the crackdown was occurring and what would have to happen to make it stop. If the violence did not cease, the constant pressure would remain. The violence was eventually suppressed and the area had remained quiet for nine months.
After much consideration, review of the data and utilizing the years of experience within the Working Group, the Wendover approach became the foundation for Operation Ceasefire.

Operation Ceasefire
From a public health perspective, Operation Ceasefire was a different approach to gang violence. The foundation was a powerful and strategic use of authority; not the usual facilitative strategy involving training for dispute resolution, violence prevention, etc. The operation had four basic levels of intervention available for use:
• Level One was a warning through forums or other means to a particular group or groups to stop the violence.
• Level Two was a near term street enforcement focused on a group delivered largely within the means of the YVSF and police department and potentially support from the other local agencies (probation, DYS, DA, other police) where deemed necessary.
• Level Three was the large, interagency, heavily coordinated operation that was apparent to the target group with sanctions on the State side.
• Level Four was for the groups that were both violent and deemed essentially unsalvageable resulting in undercover, gang-wide investigations making heavy use of Federal sanctions and designed to permanently dismantle the group. (6)

The “pulling levers” strategy of Operation Ceasefire was one that allowed law enforcement to use all the various resources available as appropriate for the target audience. It was designed to focus on the youth identified by the Working Group; the core of the city’s violence problem. This was a strong deterrence strategy. It advertised its ability to utilize all members of law enforcement and tailored its approach to a particular gang and its individual members.

Flaws within the Operation Ceasefire Intervention

In May of 1996, the Working Group convened their first communication forum held at the Dorchester Court House. The attendees included representation from all agencies involved in the Working Group plus others. DYS brought gang members out of confinement, still in restraints, and had them sit to the side of the discussion. Posters were displayed summarizing what had happened to either a specific individual or to the members of a particular gang. Each member of the Working Group explained their role and responsibility within the operation. For many in attendance, a sobering component of the meeting was the Federal presence. It was made clear that the operation had federal attention and resources such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were on board with the new strategy. It was clear the violence was no longer a local matter and being found guilty on federal charges would carry much longer sentences with potentially no chance of parole.
As evident via the Working Group and agencies involved, communication to the gang members was entirely authoritative. Even with the community involved, such as the Ten Point Coalition, the figureheads delivering the message were senior and most likely from a different socio-economic background. The gangs and the members of the Working Group had established relationships; many that were tenuous.
Attachment 1 is an example of a flier that was distributed during the meeting at the Dorchester Court House. Freddie Cardoza was regarded by the Boston Police as one of the most dangerous gang members on the street. Cardoza was arrested by YVSF with one round of handgun ammunition in his possession. In an effort to both remove him from the street as well as make a statement to the other gang members about the effectiveness of the interdisciplinary forces, Cardoza was charged by the ATF and US Attorney’s office as an armed career criminal. As the poster shows, he was sentenced to 19 years and 7 months with no chance of parole. He was moved to a maximum security prison in New York. Visitation from his family and friends would be difficult.
The challenge with this type of communication is the threat of backlash and rebellion. One component of the Psychology of Persuasion Theory revolves around the message learning approach. In accepting and receiving a message, there are four variables involved in one’s ability or willingness to fully grasp or want to grasp the message. (3) They are source, message, channel and recipient. As it applies to the Working Group’s communication, the source was entirely authoritative. Messages will be better received when it is conveyed by someone that the individual can relate to. The tone of all the communication was not only authoritative but also could easily be interpreted as threatening. The gang members could feel they had no options. No matter what the circumstance, they would be vigorously prosecuted. A greater risk here is the risk of rebellion or retaliation. With the Theory of Psychological Reactants, when people think that a freedom is threatened, they experience reactance: a motivation state aimed at restoring the threatened freedom. (10) Youth is a stage of life where rebellion is innate. Disadvantaged youth feel that they don’t have much to lose. This style of communication risked a reverse reaction. The possibility of violent out-breaks all over the city was real; resulting in increased chaos. Gangs uniting against the newly established controls would have been disastrous.

Changing the Climate of the Neighborhood:
A guiding idea behind Operation Ceasefire was that if gang violence was generating gang violence then in the absence of constant fear and provocation, the temperature on the streets might go down and “peace will beget peace”. (6) The goal was to stop the violence long enough to have the neighborhoods experience a time frame of peace and adapt to this new environment. Deemed the firebreak hypothesis, the hope was if violence could be quelled for a meaningful period, it might not naturally reemerge. (6)
The “peace will beget peace” assumption is loosely based on the Social Expectations Theory. This theory encompasses many aspects of social expectations including social roles, media and stereotypes. Social norms evolve and these norms provide the basis of how we conduct ourselves everyday within our surroundings. The behavior that we observe around us impacts our individual behavior. Social norms can evolve to, where at times, our behavior feels obligatory. People tend to adopt these norms and behave accordingly.
Being able to affect the cultural and social norms was the aspect of the Expectations Theory the Working Group was counting on. Although there is research available providing results on the effects of the media, social roles, and stereotypes and how they affect society, little research is available in understanding the effectiveness or strength of The Social Expectations Theory when applied to a complex, multivariate, explosive situation. It was a simplistic assumption applied to not only a complex and difficult problem, but one that is also part of our instinctual nature. The risk of failure was high and a strategy to address the next phase of the project had not been established.

Context for Behavior:
Extensive research was done by the Working Group to understand, in incredible detail, all the aspects of the gangs and their members. There was historical knowledge among the Working Group of the youth involved in the gangs, their history, criminal record, family environment, etc. The immediate need and focus within Operation Ceasefire was to stop the violence and the resulting deaths.
The Working Group recognized that most of these kids were in situations that were beyond their control. They were in a socioeconomic status of poverty or near poverty, broken homes, abuse, poor family structure and other challenges. In referencing Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs, these kids did not have their basic and fundamental needs met. Maslowe states there are at least five sets of goals which are basic needs – physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualization. (7) The first basic need is physiological and once that need is met, the focus shifts to safety; once the safety need is met, the focus shifts to love and so forth. It was clear from the CDC survey; youth in the city were worried about safety. Whether interested in gangs and gang retaliation or not, youth felt it was necessary to carry a gun for their own safety. It is doubtful members of the gangs were getting their basic physiological needs adequately met. When the violence and the chaos was under control, there was no discussion about researching and understanding the core reasons that gang violence was an issue in the city.

Opportunities for Improvement
In evaluating Operation Ceasefire, I would not propose a new intervention but consider modifications and additions to the intervention that was developed by addressing the shortcomings that have been discussed. In summary, the authoritative tone of communication should have been complimented with peer level communication. Although potentially risky, reformed gang members should have been a part of the program. The use of the Social Expectations Theory was the equivalent of hoping for peace; research was required to understand the core causes of gang violence and then a plan developed for the proposed next steps. Lastly, understand the factors interfering with the potential for a normal childhood for the youth in these neighborhoods, address these needs and understand what is overlapping with the impetus of gang formation.

There was a missed opportunity to bring peer participation to the communication strategy. Although potentially risky, considering the theories around the Psychology of Persuasion and Psychological Reactants, it would have been beneficial to involve previous reformed gang members or imprisoned gang members that were willing to reach out and aid with reform. It was an opportunity to build credibility with the gangs. Former gang members could have discussed the experience of prison time, what it does to your family and your life. In building an effective public health initiative, it is critical to understand your client. Although the Working Group had extensive experience in this field and with the gangs themselves, the gang members were the client for this initiative. The support of peer to peer level communication could help the Working Group understand all the perspectives on a strategy and the potential reactions of the gangs. Options would have been to have reformed gang members work the streets with a member of the Streetworkers or involve Freddie Cardoza and have him talk about the effects of being convicted a career armed criminal. His perspective could have been interesting for everyone. Therefore, it was a missed opportunity to involve peer level communication and provide credibility to the program.

Changing the Climate of the Neighborhood
I would have put no credibility into The Social Expectations Theory as it applies to cultural and social norms of gang violence. The Working Group had enough experience in the field to understand the nature of gangs and that they have been in existence for years in various shapes and forms. There is no solid body of evidence supporting the strategy of such a huge change in city dynamics and the society/community that had formed in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester. The hope that once the violence stopped peace would be the new social norm in the neighborhood was blind faith.
This shouldn’t have been an option or theory considered by the Working Group for the Operation Ceasefire program. As the team on the ground was executing, the Working Group, with the help from another representative from Public Health, should have formed a branch committee and initiated effort to craft the next steps of the plan.
The interdisciplinary team was effective but it was formed and more importantly funded as a prototype. Therefore, as soon as the team saw progress and success, they needed to move to the next stage of their strategy and it wasn’t created. Ownership of the program needed to be designated. The process and protocol needed to be identified, documented and implemented around the tasks, roles and responsibilities of the Working Group

Context for Behavior
As mentioned several times within the discussion, the causes of gang violence are multi-faceted. The problem is intertwined with many facets of life and society. Gangs have been in existence, in one form or another, for hundreds of years. The context for gang behavior is complex and constantly evolving. The basic needs of many of these youths are not met. Although Operation Ceasefire created the jolt that brought a significant decrease in homicide, it wasn’t built to last. There was no plan to address the basic needs of these kids who were struggling and resorting to gang membership.
Addressing gang violence and the root cause of gang membership is daunting. The solution for the context of behavior dovetails with changing the climate of the neighborhood. There needed to be a strategy beyond temporary peace. I would have used the same level of creativity that was pulled together for Operation Ceasefire and the same brain power that solicited funding and made the best possible effort to develop a Phase 2.
There was a great opportunity to ride the successful wave from Operation Ceasefire. A parallel working group could, through research, propose different programs and solicit funding. Options could have included involving other community project and non-profit organization, prioritize and pin-point the greatest area of need in these neighborhoods and initiate efforts, praise the gangs for the peace and even consider putting them to work – get them involved in the community. The temporary outbreak of peace was their success as well.

It is difficult to critique an initiative that worked so diligently to solve a dangerous and complex problem facing the city of Boston. The reduction in the city’s yearly youth homicide numbers certainly suggests that something noteworthy happened after Operation Ceasefire was implemented in mid 1996. In 1996, the number of youth homicides decreased to 26 and in 1997, it decreased to 15. (6) The leaders of the Working Group as well as David Kennedy will be the first to admit – it was not a miracle. A miracle is sustaining. Nor will they claim that Operation Ceasefire was the sole responsible effort for the decline in the homicide rate. It is a disheartening lost opportunity to be able create the temporary peace within Boston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and not take the next steps to attack gang violence at its core.

Attachment 1

1. Allis S. “How to Start a Cease-Fire: Learning From Boston,” Time. July 21, 1997.
2. Cialdini, Rober B, “Introduction and Chapter 1: Weapons of Influence,” Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New Youk: Harper Collins Publisher, 2007. Pp. xi-xiv, 1 – 16.
3. Cameron, Kenzie A, “A Practitioners Guide to Persuasion: An Overview of 15 Selected Persuasion Theories, Models and Frameworks,” Patient Education and Counseling 74, 2009. Pp. 309 – 317.
4. Defleur M and Ball-Rokeach S, “Chapter 8: Socialization and Theories of Indirect Influence,” Theories of Mass Communication 5th Ed., New York: Longman 1989. Pp. 202-227.
5. Gang War: Bangin In Little Rock. Why is the Boston Miracle the only tactic proven to reduce gang violence being dissd by the LAPD, the FBI, and Congress?
6. Kennedy D, Braga A, Piehl A. “Reducing Gun Violence. The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire,” Research Report, US Department of Justice, Operation of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 2001.
7. Maslow AH. “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, 1943. Pp. 376 – 396.
8. Rambaud M, “Behind the Guns: The Failure of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire Intervention to Address the Root Causes of Youth Homicide,”
9. Ritter N, “CeaseFire: A Public Health Approach to Reduce Shootings and Killings,” NIJ Journal, 264. Pp 20 – 24.
10. Silivia P, “Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27(3) 2005. Pp. 277 – 284.
11. WBUR.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home