Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Behind the Guns: The Failure of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire Intervention to Address theRoot Causes of Youth Homicide- Melanie W. Rambaud

Nationally, homicide by gun is the leading cause of death among African-American youth, 15-24-years of age. (10) Boston’s youth gun homicide rate in 2005 reached a peak taking one of the largest jumps for a city its size in 10 years (21). In 2005, 37 gun homicides involved youth between the ages of 15-24. Youth gun homicides, thus far in 2006, are up 32% compared to same period last year (4).

In the mid-1990s, from 1991-1995, the city of Boston averaged 44 youth gun homicides per year (4). Under tremendous pressure to take immediate action, the city of Boston in reaction to the alarming spike in youth violence implemented Operation Ceasefire. As a quick-fix public safety intervention, the Boston Police hoped to quell the alarming rise in gun violence among Boston’s inner-city youth. Operation Ceasefire involved a community-wide collaboration of Harvard researchers, prosecutors’, local public safety agencies, such as the Boston Police Department and the Department of Youth Services, non-profit community-service organizations, and religious leaders (6). The interagency collaboration examined the circumstances of the youth homicides and found that nearly two-thirds were gang-related. Moreover, the majority of the youth homicides were committed with illegally trafficked handguns (5).

In an effort to deter gang violence and disrupt illegal gun-trade researchers at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy’s School of Government and Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force developed a “pulling levers” deterrence strategy. The deterrence strategy was based on the premise that crimes could be prevented when the perpetrator perceives the costs to outweigh the benefits of committing the crime (6). The deterrence strategy was developed to warn gangs that if violence occurred, there would be a swift, predictable response with weighty consequences and federal prosecution for possession or dealing of guns (5).

In 1998, when Harvard researchers and the Boston Police Department compared youth violence trends in other major US cities during the period when the intervention was implemented Operation Ceasefire got credit for the decline in youth gun homicides. The perceived success of Operation Ceasefire was based on the Boston Police Department’s Office of Research and Analysis homicide data rates which reported a 66% decrease in youth homicides. Youth gun homicides dropped from 44 down to 26 in 1996, when Operation Ceasefire started and plummeted to 15 in 1997 (6).

But the recent spike in youth homicides in Boston indicates that the Operation Ceasefire intervention results were short-lived. If Operation Ceasefire had indeed been effective in greatly reducing and preventing youth homicides, then Boston would not be in the midst of yet another youth homicide epidemic today (4). According to Prothrow-Stith, “Public Health people understand that behavior is difficult to alter and that change comes not as a result of a quick fix but following a steady barrage of interventions that erode destructive attitudes and behavior over time.” Although the intervention identified two important risk factors, youth gang members and illegal gun possession, it failed to contextualize these risk factors, to understand them within their cultural, socioeconomic, and environmental contexts. Instead of trying to understand why youth joined gangs and carried guns, the intervention focused entirely on capturing the perpetrators and ensuring appropriate punishment. But focusing solely on the symptoms, gang involvement and gun possession, the intervention missed a host of contributing factors, such as the neighborhood environment, that generate violence. Unquestionably, gangs and guns tend to make violence worse but they are not the fundamental causes of violence. So far there has not been success globally in interrupting the flow of a product (guns) that is in demand whether it is legal or illegal (9).

The Operation Ceasefire intervention had 3 inherent limitations. First, this violence reduction strategy, based on deterrence, was reactive and focused solely on individual blame and punishment. Secondly, none of the youth gang members participated in the intervention design and implementation. Thirdly, the intervention did not address major external risk factors, such as environmental and socioeconomic barriers, which are both powerful influences on behavior and major causes of violence.

One of the major weaknesses of the Operation Ceasefire Intervention was the deterrence strategy used as a mechanism to reduce youth violence. The intervention assumed that getting guns off the street, arresting people for illegal gun possession, and scaring people with lengthy prison sentences would quell gun violence. The Harvard researchers and public safety officials collaborating for Operation Ceasefire framed the high incidence of youth violence in terms of individual choice. In other words, this strategy assumed that perpetrators chose to resort to gun violence, as if it they had several other options.

Deterrence strategy is so entrenched in assigning blame and ensuring adequate punishment that it fails to consider the environmental factors and precursors that may have led to the violent event in the first place. The deterrence strategy is not an effective public health strategy to reduce youth violence because it treats the problem solely on an individual basis and leaves too many unanswered questions: Why were the perpetrators and victims predominantly African-American? Why were the homicides occurring only in certain neighborhoods? What is it about the identified neighborhoods that puts people at risk? What circumstances precipitated the homicides? Why did youth join gangs in the first place?

Overall, a deterrence strategy cannot effectively prevent violence because of its narrow focus on individual responsibility. The threat of lengthy prison sentences does not adequately deter urban African-American youth, in particular, because of the overwhelming environmental stressors that plague their neighborhoods. When poverty and despair are mixed they leave people with few options for proving themselves (22). This can lead to a sense that there is little to lose or that everything is already lost. Some researchers have noted that, “Going to prison is a gang member’s way to show that he is tough enough to take it.” (19). Another study found that gang members viewed prison as a kind of prized “ritual sacrifice” that proved commitment to their gangs (19). Moreover, such a deterrence strategy reinforces the divide of “us” (law-abiding citizens) versus “them” (perpetrators and criminals) (14). This creates an unintentional barrier by implying that “they” are the problem and should be punished.

The Operation Ceasefire intervention achieved limited youth violence reduction and prevention because it did not invite gang members to participate in the formative stages of the intervention or in creating solutions. Community-based participatory methods draw upon active community involvement in the processes that shape intervention strategies (16). As such, these methods promote equal participation from all partners. This provides all participants with a sense of ownership over the solutions. But Operation Ceasefire did not tap into the neighborhood’s own resources to solve the problem. For example, the intervention did not engage youth gang members in dialogue or participation in a needs assessment to help plan the intervention strategy. Consulting directly with the gang members and community residents most affected by youth violence in their neighborhoods would have brought some of these community resources and views together and provided better insight into the particular, underlying factors that precipitated the rash of violence in their community. They are being blamed but not given responsibility for the solution. Such ownership of the process and the solution would have motivated and empowered youth gang members to “own” the solutions on their terms. Moreover, participation in the process would have given gang members experience learning that they can be part of the solution that they are not powerless to change.

A Community-based participatory approach would have also helped design and implement a more appropriate, contextualized intervention. Furthermore, having a conversation with the gang members could have shed light on the fact that many environmental, economic, and social factors that come into play are beyond their control and to establish change maybe some of those factors should have been addressed as well.

Finally, Operation Ceasefire proved to be an ineffective intervention because it failed to consider a host of ecological factors, such as environmental, socio-economic and cultural factors that significantly affect youth violence. The Social Ecological model emphasizes the relationship between environment and behavior. This approach assumes that health is shaped by many environmental subsystems, including family, community, workplace, cultural beliefs and traditions, economics, the physical world and social relationship networks. In order for health promotion efforts to be effective, they have to be comprehensive and systemic, which requires that they address these subsystems that affect a person’s health and safety (1).

In addition, the social learning theory holds that people learn behavior, especially aggression, by observing and imitating others (3). Youth growing up in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence are a product of an environment where fighting is often viewed as the best or only way to resolve conflicts and gain respect. They are more likely to witness violent acts, learn to be violent, and to have role models that do not adequately control their own violent impulses. Such violence begets violence. In effect, being a victim of violence has been found to be the strongest indicator that one will commit an act of violence in retaliation (13). Fear for one’s personal safety can undermine one’s ability to resolve conflict without violence.

Operation Ceasefire targeted young African-American male gang members who lived in the Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston. Afflicted with high rates of youth homicide, these so-called gang “hot spots” were predominantly African-African neighborhoods also characterized by high rates of poverty, social isolation, overcrowding and transiency with few conventional role models (18). Research indicates consistently that people in poorer neighborhoods tend to be exposed to more violence, and these high-risk groups, are more likely to accept violence as a fact of life (11).

In America, being poor means living in a devastated, crime-ridden neighborhood, growing up in a family without a father and going to schools where most students fail and most are expected to fail (18). To live in depressed economic conditions within a community fosters hopelessness, stress, desperation, anger, and oppression. All of these feelings can impair one’s motivation to aspire to something greater than what one sees in the environment.

In the contexts of poverty with few economic options for social mobility in mainstream society where the educational and economic systems are characterized by structured inequality and racism, fighting can earn these urban youth respect, reputation and manhood, which are prized (18). Respect is often times the only thing these youth have and if someone disrespects them they have committed the ultimate act. Prothrow-Stith further notes that, “Gang ideology defines a man as someone who is loyal to his friends and ruthless to his enemies, regardless of the consequences. These simple ideas make manhood accessible to many young men who cannot live up to the mainstream definitions…those that associate manhood with the capacity to make money. In the gang context, you need not be employed or employable. All you need is a will to fight.” Gang members overdeveloped sense of personal pride is a reflection of the impoverished environment they have little to feel proud of except their reputation. Gangs reinforce what the environment teaches by encouraging and praising members’ willingness to fight. Gangs also, provide these urban youth with a sense of community, and a sense of belonging.

The disproportionately high levels of violence among the African-American population are indicators of the underlying economic and social conditions in which the “at-risk” population is likely to live in Boston. African-American culture is shaped by circumstance, self-destructive behaviors that are not innate (18).

Operation Ceasefire was an ineffective long-term youth violence reduction intervention because it was limited to a deterrence strategy. As a public health intervention, deterrence is ineffective to change behavior, particularly gun violence, because it does not address the root causes of behavior. Violence is multi-factorial with both individual and societal causes, it requires multi-faceted efforts. In order to effectively intervene it is important to understand that violence emerges from multiple and complex environmental, economical, and cultural factors. An effective violence reduction intervention must then be a comprehensive, community-oriented approach that focuses on the circumstances that put people at high risk of engaging in or being victimized by violence. What is essential is a long-term community mobilization strategy focused on prevention that promotes youth development in the context of their community and does not emphasize punishment as a deterrent to reduce youth gun violence.


(1)Alcalay, R. & Bell, R. (2000). Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing.

(2)Aronson, E., Wilson T.D., & Akert R.M. (2005). Social Psychology, 5th edn. Pearson Education, New Jersey.

(3) Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Press, New York.

(4) Boston Police Department, Crime Statistics (Boston, MA, 2006)

(5) Braga, A. A., Kennedy, D.M., Waring, E.J., & Piehl, A. M. (2001). Problem-oriented policing, deterrence, and youth violence: An evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38: 195-225.

(6) Braga, A. A., Kennedy, D.M., Waring, E.J., & Piehl, A. M. (2001). Reducing Gun Violence: The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire. National Institute of Justice Research Report.

(7) Braga, A. A., Kennedy, E.J., & Piehl, A. M. (1999). Youth Homicide in Boston: An Assessment of Supplementary Homicide Report Data, Homicide Studies 3, 4.

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(9) Briggs, J.E. (2006). Treating Violence as an Infectious Disease. Chicago Tribune, April 9.

(10) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Preventing Youth Violence” Injury Research Center. (http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pubres/research_agenda/09_youthviolence.htm)

(11) Dahlberg, L. L., (1998). Youth Violence in the United States Major Trends, Risk Factors, and Prevention Approaches. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14,4.

(12) Green, L. W. and Kreuter, M. W. (1999) Health Promotion Planning: An Educational and Ecological Approach. Mayfield, Mountain View, CA.

(13) Hemenway, D. (2004). Private Guns Public Health. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

(14) Kennedy, D, M. (1994) Can we keep guns away from kids? American Prospects 18:74-80.

(15) Murphy, S.P. (2006). Police call on public to combat violence. Boston Globe, October 16.

(16) O’Fallon, L.R. & Dearry, A. (2002). Community-Based Participatory Research as a Tool to Advance Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110: 155-159.

(17) Prothrow-Stith, D. & Spivak, H. (2006). Getting back to antiviolence. Boston Globe, May 19.

( 18) Prothrow-Stith, D. (2004). Strengthening the Collaboration between Public Health and Criminal Justice to Prevent Violence. Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics, 32: 82-88.

(19)Prothrow-Stith, D. & Weissman, M. (1991). Deadly Consequences. Harper Collins, New York.

(20) Santrock, J. W. (2005). Adolescence, 10th edn. McGraw Hill, New York.

(21) Smalley, S. & Cramer, M. (2006). Homicide spike ranks high for cities Boston’s size but rate per person is in middle range. Boston Globe, January 9.

(22) Welsh, B.C. (2005). Public Health and the Prevention of Juvenile Criminal. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, Vol. 3 No. 1: 23-40.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting
i wish you a mervelous wedding

1:58 PM  

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