Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America

In the mid-1990s, David M. Kennedy spearheaded Operation Ceasefire, a series of interventions aimed at bringing down the high youth homicide rate in Boston. The project worked so well that it became widely known by another name: the Boston Miracle. In his new book, Kennedy, now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, writes, “I always hated that name, it wasn’t a miracle, it was hard damned work.”

Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America is Kennedy’s passionate account of that work, which has seen striking results not just in the roughest sections of Boston but in many of the bleakest neighborhoods of the United States. While his goals were lofty — healing toxic relationships between the police and blighted communities, rewriting the conventional wisdom on gangs, drugs, and violent crime — Kennedy proposed solutions so simple that cops often laughed him out of the room.
Years of research showed that a very small percentage of gang members was actually driving inner-city violence — and that most of the kids joining gangs felt trapped and scared. The program Kennedy created in response involved calling them into forums with police and a host of community workers and social service providers. Gang members were told that the community cared about them and would help them, but the violence had to stop. If it didn’t, they were warned, heavy law enforcement would come down on them hard. The program left gangs intact but “surgically [excised] the violence from the mix.” In most cases, violent crime plummeted almost immediately.

Kennedy’s chronicle of his two and a half decades working on urban crime is highly readable, if occasionally repetitive. He is by turns hopeful and wry, though consistently generous to the many colleagues he’s worked with in the field. He is also bracingly honest, about everything from poisoned race relations and vicious local politics to the zigzagging emotions he experiences as he immerses himself in this important work. He writes, “I have gone from feeling, at least from time to time, pretty damned smart, to feeling deeply, profoundly humble and not infrequently ashamed.”