By Contributing Op-Ed columnist on November 10, 2012 at 6:40 AM, updated November 10, 2012 at 6:41 AM
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and a cadre of law enforcement and judicial officials, community members and social service providers met two weeks ago with a small group of probationers and parolees to deliver a simple message: Your community needs the violence to stop; there is help for you if you want it; this is not a negotiation and the rules of engagement have changed.
It was the first step in a significant effort that could have a significant impact on the murders and violence gripping New Orleans. The Group Violence Reduction Strategy, part of the city's larger NOLA for Life strategy, could also help many of those engaged in violent activities begin to turn their lives around. And it could help enormously with perhaps the most important step possible to stop the violence over the long term: making it clear to the relatively few truly violent in New Orleans that strong community standards stand against what they are doing.
The approach is designed to address the relatively small number of people who are locked in various group dynamics on the streets, and who are responsible for an overwhelming majority of murders. Law enforcement officials know who street gangs and violent groups are and know that many of their members are on parole or probation.
"Law enforcement officials know who street gangs and violent groups are and know that many of their members are on parole or probation."
At the Oct. 25 meeting in an Orleans Parish courtroom, those assembled heard in no uncertain terms that these groups would be held accountable for murders their members commit. They were told that the next gang or violent group that crosses the line and commits murder will get a concentrated and organized response from local, state and federal law enforcement to any and all crimes their members may be committing, whether it's selling drugs, using drugs, carrying weapons or violating probation or parole. And they heard passionate statements from community figures -- including the mother of a murdered son and a former offender who has turned his life around -- testifying to the pain the violence causes in the community and the absolute insistence that it must end.
Those attending were told to spread the word back to the groups they run with.
Balancing the promise to hold gangs and violent groups accountable, however, was a commitment to support individuals who no longer wish to engage in violence. As part of the strategy, the city is organizing and building the capacity of social service providers, clergy and probation and parole officers so that they can provide support to those who wish to make a change. The support includes dedicated case management, help with transitional housing, substance-abuse counseling and job placement. It includes a hotline that gang and group members can call to ask for help. Similar meetings have taken place in cities across America, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Newark, Boston and, soon, Detroit.
More than 15 years of experience has demonstrated that many groups will listen when members of their own community say they are fed up and want the violence to stop. When gang and group members believe that violence will bring attention to the whole group, they will police themselves. Some will take the offered help. Typical results range from about a 40 percent reduction in gang- and group-related homicides to, sometimes, a substantially larger impact.
The message -- that the community needs the killing to stop, that people who want help can get it and that gangs that kill will pay the price -- may take repeated airings to get through. But once they are heard and understood on the streets, we should begin to see real improvements in the city's most troubled neighborhoods.
David M. Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an adviser to the NOLA for Life Group Violence Reduction Strategy. Kennedy developed the nationally renowned violence reduction strategy, which has been rolled out in more than 50 cities. His most recent book is Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.