Boston Gun Project and Operation Ceasefire

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The Boston Gun Project was a problem-oriented policing enterprise

expressly aimed at taking on a serious, large-scale crime problem—homicide

victimization among young people in Boston. Like many large cities in

the United States, Boston experienced a large, sudden increase in youth

homicide between the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Boston Gun Project

proceeded by: (1) assembling an interagency working group of largely linelevel

criminal justice and other practitioners; (2) applying quantitative and

7Rosenfeld and Decker (1996) note that the officers involved in the program seized 402

firearms in 1996 and, during the first quarter of 1996, seized 104 firearms.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE INTERVENTIONS 237

qualitative research techniques to create an assessment of the nature of and

dynamics driving youth violence in Boston; (3) developing an intervention

designed to have a substantial, short-term impact on youth homicide; (4)

implementing and adapting the intervention; and (5) evaluating the

intervention’s impact (Kennedy et al., 1996). The project began in early

1995 and implemented what is now known as the Operation Ceasefire

intervention, which began in late spring 1996. While the Boston Gun Project

initially focused on firearms and firearm-related violence, the focus evolved

as it found that gangs and violent gang offending were central to Boston’s

youth gun violence problem. To trigger intervention, any serious violent

offending by a gang (knives, blunt instrument beatings) was enough. In

practice, however, it was mostly gun offending. Because much of the youth

violence epidemic in the 1990s involved firearms and because the Boston

Gun Project is cited as a highly effective way to reduce youth firearmrelated

violence, we devote attention to it in this report.

The project has been extensively described and documented (Kennedy et

al., 1996; Kennedy et al., 1997; Kennedy, 1997). Briefly, a working group of

law enforcement personnel, youth workers, and researchers diagnosed the

youth violence problem in Boston as one of patterned, largely vendetta-like

hostilities(“beefs”) among a small population of chronic criminal offenders,

and particularly among those involved in some 60 loose, informal, mostly

neighborhood-based groups (these groups were called “gangs” in Boston, but

were not Chicago- or LA-style gangs, which are much larger and more formally

organized). As this diagnosis developed, the focus of the project shifted

from its initial framework of juvenile violence and firearm-related violence to

gang violence. A central hypothesis of the working group was that a meaningful

period of substantially reduced youth violence might serve as a firebreak

and result in a relatively long-lasting reduction in future youth violence

(Kennedy et al., 1996). The idea was that youth violence in Boston had

become a self-sustaining cycle among a relatively small number of youth,

with objectively high levels of risk leading to nominally self-protective behavior,

such as gun acquisition and use, gang formation, tough street behavior,

and the like: behavior that then became an additional input into the cycle of

violence (Kennedy et al., 1996). If this cycle could be interrupted, a new

equilibrium at a lower level of risk and violence might be established, perhaps

without the need for continued high levels of either deterrent or facilitative

intervention. The larger hope was that a successful intervention to reduce

gang violence in the short term would have a disproportionate, sustainable

impact in the long term.

The Operation Ceasefire “pulling-levers” strategy was designed to deter by

reaching out directly to gangs, saying explicitly that violence would no longer

be tolerated, and backing up that message by “pulling every lever” legally

available when violence occurred (Kennedy, 1997). Simultaneously, youth

workers, probation and parole officers, and later churches and other community

groups offered gang members services and other kinds of help. The Operation

Ceasefire working group delivered this message in formal meetings with

gang members, through individual police and probation contacts with gang

members, through meetings with inmates of secure juvenile facilities in the city,

and through gang outreach workers and activist black clergy. The deterrence

message was not a deal with gang members to stop violence. Rather, it was a

promise to gang members that violent behavior would evoke an immediate and

intense response. If gangs committed other crimes but refrained from violence,

the normal workings of police, prosecutors, and the rest of the criminal justice

system dealt with these matters. As described below, Operation Ceasefire also

attempted to disrupt the illegal supply of firearms to youth by focusing enforcement

attention on firearms traffickers.

The evaluation of Operation Ceasefire used a basic one-group timeseries

design to measure the effects of the intervention on youth homicide

and other indicators of nonfatal serious violence in Boston. Braga et al.

(2001a, 2001b) found that the Operation Ceasefire intervention was associated

with a 63 percent decrease in monthly number of Boston youth

homicides, a 32 percent decrease in monthly number of shots-fired calls, a

25 percent decrease in the monthly number of firearm-related assaults, and,

in one high-risk police district given special attention in the evaluation, a 44

percent decrease in monthly number of youth firearm-related assault incidents.

These reductions associated with Operation Ceasefire persisted when

control variables, such as changes in Boston’s employment trends, youth

population, and citywide violence trends, were added to the regression

models. Furthermore, the basic qualitative results also remained when youth

homicide trends in Boston were compared with youth homicide trends in

other large U.S. cities. Boston’s significant youth homicide reduction was

distinct when compared with youth homicide trends in most major U.S. and

New England cities (Braga et al., 2001a, 2001b).8

The dramatic drop in the youth homicide rate in Boston and the associated

analysis of Braga et al. (2001a, 2001b) are compelling. Youth homicides

in Boston were reduced just after the adoption of Operation

Ceasefire.9 However, it is difficult to specify cause and effect. Braga and his

8Piehl et al. (1999) examined the youth homicide time series for exogenous structural

breaks; these analyses suggest that the maximal break in the series occurred in June 1996—

just after the Operation Ceasefire implementation date.

9Boston, like many other U.S. cities, experienced a sudden increase in firearm-related violence

in 2001. Reported crimes involving firearms increased by over 10 percent between

2000 and 2001 and decreased moderately in 2002 (http://www.ci.boston.ma.us/police/pdfs/

dec2003.pdf). McDevitt and his colleagues (2003) suggest that the Boston youth violence

problems are dynamic, and the interventions designed to deal with youth violence need to be

adjusted appropriately. Since 2001, Boston has been expanding Operation Ceasefire to deal

with a wider range of violence problems.

colleagues compare youth homicide before and after the intervention. This

type of methodology holds much appeal when an intervention is the only

notable event occurring in the time period under study. Observational data

from Boston, however, were not derived from an experimental evaluation.

To the contrary, during this period of dramatic declines in youth crime

throughout the country, there were potentially many levers being pulled in

Boston, some controlled by the Operation Ceasefire group and some controlled

by outside (and perhaps unobserved) forces. Furthermore, even if all

of the determinants of violence except Operation Ceasefire were time invariant,

the dynamics that connect enforcement to violence would be complex

(these same issues are discussed in National Research Council, 2001).

An activity undertaken at a specific place and time presumably does not

generate an instant response in violence. And, to the extent that there is a

response, it may merely reflect short-term acceleration in the rate of change

but not in the steady-state levels in youth crime.

The existing research provides some insight into these potential statistical

problems. Braga and his colleagues controlled for demographic shifts,

drug market changes, and employment. Moreover, the evaluation shows

that the Boston trend is very different from trends in other cities. Kennedy

et al. (2001) provide an anecdotal account of the Boston story and Braga et

al. (2001a, 2001b) survey the plausibility that other Boston interventions,

most notably public health interventions, were associated with the sudden

drop. Still, the primary evaluation does allow one to make direct links

between key components of the intervention and the subsequent behavior

of individuals subjected to the intervention. Many complex factors affect

the trajectory of youth violence problems, and, while the there is a strong

association between the youth homicide drop and the implementation of

Operation Ceasefire, it is very difficult to specify the exact role it played in

the reduction of youth homicide in Boston.

Supply-Side Programs

In addition to preventing gun violence amongst gangs, Boston’s Operation

Ceasefire interagency problem-solving group sought to disrupt the

illegal supply of firearms to youth by systematically (Braga et al., 2001a:

199):

• Expanding the focus of local, state, and federal authorities to include

intrastate trafficking in Massachusetts-sourced guns, in addition to

interstate trafficking;

• Focusing enforcement attention on traffickers of those makes and

calibers of guns most used by gang members, on traffickers of guns showing

short time-to-crime, and on traffickers of guns used by the city’s most

violent gangs;

• Attempting restoration of obliterated serial numbers and subsequent

trafficking investigations based on those restorations;

• Supporting these enforcement priorities through analysis of crime

gun traces generated by the Boston Police Department’s comprehensive

tracing of crime guns and by developing leads through systematic debriefing

of (especially) arrestees involved with gangs or involved in violent

crime.

The Boston supply-side approach was implemented in conjunction

with the pulling-levers demand-side strategy to reduce youth violence.

The gun trafficking investigations and prosecutions followed the implementation

of the pulling-levers strategy, so their effects on firearm-related

violence could not be independently established (Braga et al., 2001a).

However, the National Institute of Justice, in partnership with the Bureau

of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, recently funded a demonstration program

in Los Angeles to examine the effects of disrupting the illegal supply

of firearms on the nature of the illegal market and on firearm-related

violence (Tita et al., 2003). In addition to addressing the firearm-related

violence problem in Los Angeles, this interagency law enforcement project

was developed to provide other jurisdictions with guidance on how to

analyze and develop appropriate problem-solving interventions to control

illegal firearms markets.

Other Applications of the Pulling-Levers Focused Deterrence Approach

After the well-publicized success of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, a

number of jurisdictions began experimenting with these new problemsolving

frameworks to prevent gang and group-involved violence. Braga et

al. (2002) detail the experiences of Minneapolis (MN), Baltimore (MD),

the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles (CA), Stockton (CA), and Indianapolis

(IN) in tailoring the approach to fit their violence problems and

operating environments. Although specific tactics sometimes varied across

the cities, these programs implemented the basic elements of the original

Boston strategy, including the pulling-levers focused deterrence strategy,

designed to prevent violence by and among chronic offenders and groups

of chronic offenders; the convening of an interagency working group representing

a wide range of criminal justice and social service capabilities;

and jurisdiction-specific assessments of violence dynamics, perpetrator and

victim characteristics, and related issues such as drug market characteristics

and patterns of firearms use and acquisition. All were facilitated by a

close, more or less real-time partnership between researchers and practitioners.

Basic pretest/posttest analyses from these initiatives revealed that

these new approaches to the strategic prevention of gang and groupinvolved

violence were associated with reductions in violent crime (Braga

et al., 2002). To date, these replication studies are mostly descriptive in

nature.10