Originally published Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Book review

'Don't Shoot': Saving young lives in a long gang war

Book review: Criminologist David M. Kennedy's "Don't Shoot" is the story of the "Boston Miracle," a strategy mounted by Boston officials in the mid-1990s that dramatically reduced gang violence. Kennedy will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David M. Kennedy

The author of "Don't Shoot" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 in advance at and available at the door.
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'Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America'

by David M. Kennedy

Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $26

In August, local officials announced additional funding of $1.4 million to fight a growing gang war in South King County. The money will go to additional police equipment, newly focused prosecutors and programs to help at-risk youth. "We know we can't arrest our way out of this problem," King County Executive Dow Constantine said at the time.

Constantine's comment could have come directly off the pages of "Don't Shoot," a fascinating new book by criminologist David M. Kennedy. Kennedy was the social scientist who helped orchestrate what came to be known as the "Boston Miracle" in the mid-1990s. This book, part memoir and part scientific report, chronicles his three decades on the front line in the gang and drug war.

What Kennedy found out when he studied and interviewed gang members upended popular notions. He discovered that gang members were almost universally terrified of being shot and dying young, but that to save face they had no other option than to shoot their enemies, or be shot. He found that a very few criminals committed most of the crimes. Kennedy outlines two recurrent themes in his research: "One was the ignorance gang members had about the legal risks they faced. The other was how scared they were."

The resulting approach of the Boston police was unique. They held a town forum, and invited gang members (some at the threat of pulled parole). Police announced that gun violence would not be tolerated on any level, and that federal gun laws (no parole) would be leveled on any shooters. And while they hadn't exactly turned a blind eye to drug trafficking, they did say that if the murder rate didn't go down, they would make extraordinary efforts to shut down the drug trade. They told criminals, Kennedy writes, "the special attention was because of the shooting, and that if the shooting stopped, things would go back to the status quo."

What happened next shocked even Kennedy. When gang members realized other gangsters also had to play by these new rules — and they didn't have to save "face" by killing each other — the murder rate plummeted. It was a strategy Kennedy calls an "honorable exit." He quotes one gang member as saying, "It helps because we say to each other now, 'Don't shoot that boy because we're going to have problems with the police.' " And while that might have seemed logical in the first place, without the extra emphasis, and social-service involvement, the violence had been accepted.

Kennedy's book goes on to talk about the political ramifications that have hindered similar policies. He also notes that $1.2 billion dollars was spent on the "this is your brain on drugs" campaign, though criminologists found the effort not only failed to deter drug use, it made the problem worse.

Kennedy is a criminologist, but also an activist, and there are parts of his book that read as a polemic. The text could have been greatly served by a tight editor.

Yet the science of Kennedy's argument is solid, and he shows again and again that many of our approaches to crime are done to make an electorate feel good, without changing basic dynamics that drive the drug trade.

One of the best uses for a bit of King County's $1.4 million would be to buy a copy of Kennedy's book for every politician, street cop and gangster in the county. Understanding and knowledge, more than guns and handcuffs, are weapons in the war on crime that last for generations.

Seattle author Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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