06/22/2012 07:19 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

An Interview with David Kennedy About Chicago Homicide

David Kennedy, author of the popular book Don't Shoot and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been working with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) since the summer of 2010 to reduce homicides in Chicago, employing a violence reduction strategy in District 11, District 7 and District 15. The efforts have had notable success. Sifting through the preliminary data, Kennedy said, "In (District) 11 there's been a homicide reduction, depending on what period you're talking about, of between 40 and 20 percent."

Working with the CPD, the State's Attorney's Office and the Illinois Department of Corrections, Kennedy and his team employ a meticulous strategy to compel gang members and others not to commit violent crime. They host call-ins with known criminals or those who might commit crimes in dangerous neighborhoods to warn them about strict enforcement for violence. "The call-in is a way of talking to the gangs out in the neighborhood. It's not directly about the individuals in the call-in," Kennedy said. Kennedy said that his team sees impact on behavior by the second or third call-in. Only District 11 has advanced past a first call-in in Chicago.

Contrary to what one might imagine, the call-in does not feature officers cutting deals with gang members like in the popular TV series The Wire. "We never ever say we'll be lenient," Kennedy said. "We say there is a new reality around violence. And people cannot imagine saying to somebody, 'We're giving you prior notice, here's how you do things, we're going to insist that you not be violent,' without somehow making that a trade or a negotiation. It's not a trade or a negotiation. It's saying everything is going to go on as before except around the violence. When there's violence we're really raising the ante."

The violence reduction strategy grew out of similar efforts in the early 2000s to intervene to reduce gun carrying and gun use called Project Safe Neighborhood. Using similar strategies to Kennedy's, the efforts saw a 35 percent reduction in homicides in targeted neighborhoods in the first two years after the project started and individual changes in the behavior of people who went to the call-ins.

Kennedy has a team of three working on the ground in Chicago, funded by a MacArthur grant. He also brings in outside experts, some who worked on the predecessor projects, to help in the effort. Originally started under police Superintendent Jody Weis, the strategy eventually resumed under new police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. They use what is known as faction-level analysis to pinpoint problematic people in neighborhoods. "Saying you have a problem with the Vice Lords is like saying you have a problem with cars. It doesn't tell you what's going on on your block," Kennedy said. The increased specificity of being able to tell who has been violent and who might become violent has appealed to the CPD, which has built this type of analysis into its information systems, Kennedy said. "Once they saw that, they said, 'This makes all kinds of sense. We're going to do this city-wide.'"

The exactness Kennedy uses is his analysis is key to his work. He only focuses on a certain type of violent crime, homicide. And he only focuses on those known to have committed past violent crimes or have large rap sheets. "We have no reason to suspect that it would have any meaningful impact on domestic violence, for example," he said. "It's probably not to have any large impact on street robbery. It's aimed at a very narrow category of lethal violence. And one reason to think that it works is because it is that carefully focused and specified."

Such thinking certainly affects his perception of the problem. Kennedy views the violence epidemic as tragic, but a tragedy mostly confined to a certain unfortunate set of people. He calls into question the popular notion that everyone in dangerous neighborhoods will either be victimized or victimize. "What turns out to be true no matter where you go," he said, "is the violence is always driven by a very small population of very distinct offenders... In those groups you find guys who have astronomically high rates of criminal offending and really extreme criminal records."

Superintendent McCarthy took flak recently for saying there is "a perception issue" at work in the way we talk about increased crime in Chicago. Indeed, homicides were down 17 percent in the last month, even though they are up 35 percent over the past year. But he may have struck at a deeper truth illustrated by Kennedy's detail-oriented perspective on violence: How bad the violence is depends on who you are and where you are.

Kennedy's outside partner on the project, University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Andrew Papachristos, is applying social network analysis to gain data for the project that highlights the perceptual aspect of the problem. "He can find a network of 1,500 people who are connected by their criminal activity or apparent criminal activity" in addition to finding people responsible for most homicides in the area in the past five years, Kennedy said. "If you are not in that network, your homicide risk is about the same as anybody else in Chicago no matter where you live. So essentially, if you're not in that network even though you are in the most dangerous neighborhood of the city, you are not at elevated risk." The national average rate for homicides is 5.5 per 100,000 people. That figure is under the global average of about nine per 100,000 people . But the U.S. leads the developed world in youth mortality rate, with almost 60 per 100,000, in part due to violence.

"A violence problem that can look like it's about a city or a neighborhood something racial or at risk youth or troubled families or a whole bunch of very broad categories can actually be filtered down to a tiny number of people whose names we know," Kennedy said. "And those folks are extraordinarily active and at extraordinary high risk."

As one might expect, Kennedy's laser-like focus on the violence makes him question efforts to solve the violence problem through addressing unemployment, despite the connection some studies make between unemployment and violence. He notes that these strategies do not have the same immediate impact on homicide as his strategy does and that even the long-term unemployed are unlikely to shoot anybody.

And while Kennedy's strategy is unlikely to quickly change the diverse causes of homicides or address non-violent crime, which is also plaguing many neighborhoods and making them unattractive for businesses and unsafe for visitors, his logic may be wise. In a famous Buddhist parable, a man is shot by a poisonous arrow but as a doctor tries to remove it, the victim protests, wanting to know who shot him, how old they were, what caused them to do it. Buddha's explanation was that we should treat the problems plaguing us first and worry about the larger questions like causality later. As more data come in, Chicago will see if the strategy is enlightened or not.