‘Operation Ceasefire’ Takes Aim at Crime in Newark

February 6, 2013

Operation Ceasefire - image of police line

While many are working to help Newark achieve the revitalization it has long sought, high crime continues to be a seemingly permanent hindrance to progress. The crime problems in Newark are well known: a decade of crime ten times the national average; a longtime center for the illegal gun trade; and a solidly rooted and violent drug market. While there has been progress in recent years in reducing crime — the Foundation has funded both the Newark Police Foundation and the City’s Community Eye program — it is clear that further improvements will require new solutions. Finding a new solution to crime is, therefore, at the heart of a recent grant from the Foundation to bring a nationally tested model for crime reduction to Newark.

The effort is being led by the Newark Police Department along with David Kennedy of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at CUNY and Anthony Braga and Todd Clear of Rutgers University. The program is premised on a simple fact: violence and drug activity in troubled neighborhoods is caused predominantly by a remarkably small and active number of people locked in the group dynamics of gangs and drug crews.

Through their extensive research — as well as Professor Kennedy’s work in other big cities — they have determined that “violence can be dramatically reduced when community members and law enforcement join together to directly engage with these groups” and make clear the opportunities and consequences that await both individual members and the group as a whole. The strategy is part of a national model called ‘Operation Ceasefire.’

“What we are saying to these individuals is, ‘we want you to know what’s going on because we want to keep you alive and out of prison and we respect that you will make good judgments if you have good information,’” said Kennedy, who is also the Co-Chair of the National Network for Safe Communities. “We are using these meetings as a device to talk to the streets; we ask them to take the information they get from us back to their groups.”

And so, within Newark’s 26 square miles, the campaign will begin to communicate three core concepts directly to group members:

  1. a message of the community’s need for the violence to stop,
  2. a message on the consequences of continued violence, and
  3. a genuine offer of help to those who want it.

Group members participate in forums, dubbed “Call-Ins,” as a requirement of their probation or parole, or through home visits or voluntary means. By bringing police together with other community members — such as clergy, social workers and victims’ families — the network gives group members a “way out” and an opportunity to communicate these options to their fellow group members.

“This puts the groups on notice ahead of time, so they know what consequences await and they know what to do to stop it,” said Kennedy.

The professors argue that engaging group members in this way removes many of their arguments against cooperation — namely, that their struggle is strictly with the Police Department, that the police do not care about their well-being, and that the police only come into the community after a crime has occurred.

On the flip side, group members are warned that the authorities will deliberately dismantle any organization — gang, drug crew or otherwise — that has a member who commits a homicide, going after not only an individual suspect, but also the associated group at-large.

“The routine response to a homicide is to go after one or more individual suspects,” said Kennedy. “Now, the homicide will draw attention to a group’s criminality, and we will go through that group with a fine-tooth comb for any crimes any of its members may be committing. It is a new set of consequences.”

The strategy has been tested in other cities where it yielded significant results, including a two-thirds reduction in youth homicide and a 50 percent reduction in homicide city-wide in Boston, and a 41 percent reduction in gang killing in Cincinnati.

Recognizing Operation Ceasefire’s unconventional approach to reducing crime and record of success in other cities, several philanthropic organizations in the state are supporting the effort. Chief among them is the Victoria Foundation, a private grant-making institution that seeks to improve the quality of life in Newark.

“We’ve been focused on Newark for the last 50 years, especially in the areas of education and neighborhood development, and what crosses all these boundaries is the issue of public safety and feeling safe in your community,” said Irene Cooper-Basch, Executive Officer and Secretary of the Victoria Foundation Board. “This violence intervention effort has the potential to dramatically reverse the tragic trend in shootings and homicides in Newark.”

CFNJ is supporting the program with legacy funds that donors have entrusted to the Foundation to address critical community challenges. The strategy was a good fit for those dollars given its focus on improving conditions for Newark families.

“Any effort with the courage and determination to take on such a complex, chronic problem is worth supporting,” said Hans Dekker, President of CFNJ. “We were so impressed by their deliberate approach to reducing crime, and we especially look forward to seeing the results. The end goal here is to make Newark a safer, healthier, more vibrant city.”