On Tuesday, the city council voted to implement a crime fighting strategy known as Project Ceasefire in an effort to combat against Stockton’s rising violent crime. Faced with dwindling resources and increasingly fearless criminals, Stockton’s police department has been overwhelmed. Could Project Ceasefire– a program that has shown great success in other cities and even in Stockton in the late 1990s– give law enforcement the upper hand in corralling a spiraling crime rate? City officials hope so, and have agreed to allocate funds to give it a shot.
Understandably, many are probably skeptical of this approach, as recent sweeps and partnerships with other agencies have not necessarily resulted in less violent crime. However, Project Ceasefire is an extremely comprehensive approach, and there is a plethora of research showing just how effective the initiative can be in reducing violent gang related crime. Results from other cities are encouraging, though these past outcomes do not necessarily guarantee success today. Below, I present an overview of the program that will hopefully help the city curb the ongoing crime epidemic.
Project Ceasefire originated in Boston in the mid 1990s as a response to the city’s high rate of youth homicides. The results of the project were dramatic as not only did youth homicide rates decline at a more rapid pace than any other large US city, but rates of citywide gun assault incidents, citywide shots-fired calls for service, and youth gun assault incidents also saw a significant drop off. Success in Boston lead to the implementation of Project Ceasefire in a host of other cities, including Minneapolis and Indianapolis, with similarly positive results.
The concept of Project Ceasefire revolves around a two-pronged approach: (1) Providing a strong outreach and communication strategy to at risk populations and (2) Ensuring swift, certain and severe punishment to violent crime offenders. Sounds simple enough, but the actual implementation of such a strategy requires a concerted, coordinated effort between the city, area law enforcement officials, state and federal agencies and community stakeholders.
In terms of outreach, Ceasefire works through direct communication with at risk populations that statistically make up the majority of crime in a city (literature has shown that violent crimes are committed by a disproportionately small segment of the population). These meetings are facilitated by probation and parole officers as well as churches and community groups. The goal of this outreach is not to make a deal with gangs or to implore individuals to change their ways, but instead to make crystal clear that violent crimes will no longer be tolerated, and that the city is going to use every resource– local, state, and federal– to prosecute them to the full extent of the law should they engage in violent behavior. This approach is known as the “pulling levers” strategy: conveying the message that law enforcement will “pull every lever” to go after violent offenders. In addition, these communications also offer services to at risk populations, such as drug treatment and job placement assistance, as an alternative.
The notion of deterring crime by ensuring quick and severe punishment is consistent with literature which has shown that criminals are less likely to engage in criminal activity if they know they will face swift consequences. For example, analysis of Hawaii’s HOPE repeat drug offender program found that repeat offenses dropped dramatically when offenders were subjected to more prompt hearings and guaranteed sentences (Note: this study was conducted by Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA that I have taken courses with).
An integral part of the success of Project Ceasefire is the legitimization of the stern message conveyed to these at risk groups. These offenders have to believe that their actions will have unavoidable consequences. In the large cities where this program has been implemented, the dismantling and prosecution of violent gangs was used to get the message to other violent groups that they could suffer a similar fate. In Boston, the city targeted the Intervale Street Posse, which resulted in a federal prosecution of the gang’s adult members. Officials used the Intervale Street Posse as an example for other gangs, conveying the message that should they partake in similar violent activities, they would suffer the same fate. In Minneapolis, a multiagency force took down a group known as the Boguz Boys in similar fashion. In Indianapolis, the Brightwood Gang was also felled. These high-profile gangs were brought down by the coordinated effort of local, state and federal agencies and severed as a warning to other groups that violent crimes would receive the bulk of the city’s resources.
Despite its simple premise, Project Ceasefire is credited with dramatic declines in violent crime in other cities. In Boston, the city’s youth homicide rate fell by two thirds after the program’s inception. Regression analysis found that Project Ceasefire was associated with a 63 percent decrease in the monthly number of youth homicides. The same analysis found a positive correlation between the program and a decline in shots fired police calls, gun assaults and gun incidents. In Minneapolis, the city’s homicide rate fell by 45%. In Indianapolis, homicides fell by 34%. The analysis done on these cities also compared these reductions to other cities to control against national trends, and found that Project Ceasefire did indeed lower homicides at a faster rate than other comparable cities.
Ceasefire worked so well in these other cities, that Stockton actually used a variation of the program in the late 90s. In 1997, Stockton created a Gang Street Enforcement Team to deal exclusively with gangs, conducting outreach to at risk populations and focusing investigations on known violent gangs. This team also included participation from county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. The results, like in Boston and other cities, were clear. Below is a chart showing homicide rates in the years following the implementation of Ceasefire, which was put in place in 1997.
While past results have been positive, there is no guarantee the same success will translate today. Specifically, the Stockton Police Department is drastically understaffed, making implementation difficult. For Project Ceasefire to have the intended effect, potential criminals have to believe that if they commit a serious crime, they will face swift and severe consequences. Right now, because of a lack of resources, criminals in Stockton do not have that fear. Brazen bank robberies, gold chain thefts, and day time homicides indicate that the police force is overwhelmed and criminals know it. For Project Ceasefire to work in Stockton today, the police department will need to increase and reorganize resources and/or lean heavily on outside help from state and federal agencies.
Furthermore, when Ceasefire was introduced to Stockton in 1997, about three fifths of the city’s homicides were gang related. According to the Record in July, the majority of murders have not been gang related (although this report indicates that over half of the homicides are at least suspected of being gang related). Ceasefire focuses specifically on gangs, and it appears that the percentage of gang related violent crimes is not as high as in 1997. This disparity may diminish the effectiveness of Ceasefire in terms of reducing overall violent crime.