A Proven Strategy For Curtailing Street Killings Arrives In a Stricken City


The concept is straightforward: Identify the multiple street groups, often enmeshed in the drug trade, that are committing the bulk of killings in a city. Then set down a vigorously enforced standard: Harm anyone, and your entire clique will be punished.

Hours after Brown's slaying, the triggerman, Antonio Williams, was captured in a house. He would plead guilty to murder in September, drawing a sentence of 20 years to life.

In addition, authorities used every tactic at their disposal -- undercover drug buys, saturation patrols, old warrants -- to methodically dismantle Thurston Zoo, netting 11 young men on felony drug and gun charges.

An additional 20 chronic offenders on probation or parole and known for their links to violent groups were brought to a courtroom for a face-to-face meeting with social workers, community leaders and law enforcement officials.

It was the first in a series of call-ins intended to spread the word: The rules had changed.

Homicide commander Lt. Mike Wood spelled out the group's options: Take an outstretched hand and get help from clergy, rec centers or outreach groups -- or expect a clenched fist.

"The message was, `We know who you are, we know who your friends are,"' Wood said. "`You kill somebody, we're coming after both you and your friends. We've done it already. Thurston Zoo was the first group to go. This is not business as usual."'

By Ben Dobbin, The Associated Press

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- While walking to a bus stop near his home, 19-year-old Craig Brown Jr. found himself suddenly hemmed in by four neighborhood thugs. He barely hesitated before handing over his jacket and boots.

A construction-trade apprentice enrolled in a job center downtown, the slim teen was so shaken by the encounter on Thurston Road in October 2002 that he started catching the bus at a busier intersection a half-mile away. His tormentors, members of a drug-peddling clan nicknamed Thurston Zoo, caught up with him there one morning last March.

Though Brown flung aside his tool belt and hard hat and ran, he was shot by a 16-year-old, the bullets ripping into his back and hip. He stumbled across the street, collapsing on the tarmac of a gas station.

The police chief would later brand the crime a "thrill kill," but Brown was clinging to life when a squad car reached the scene and David Kennedy stepped out.

Kennedy, a Harvard University criminologist, had recently been enlisted to work his magic in quelling the unusually high level of homicides in New York's third-biggest city.

"Here was this utterly inoffensive young man who died right in front of us," said Kennedy.

The brazen, daylight attack set in motion an innovative community policing strategy devised by Kennedy: Operation Ceasefire.

It first saw dramatic success in Boston, where it was introduced in 1996; since then, homicides among people under age 25 have declined by 66 percent. The program has been transplanted, with often startling results, to more than a dozen cities, from Stockton, Calif., and Winston-Salem, N.C., to Indianapolis, Minneapolis and New Haven, Conn.

"When it works, you get big, rapid reductions in serious violence," Kennedy said matter-of-factly. He expected that kind of success in Next, police homed in on Dipset, a drug brigade linked to 10 killings that took its identity from a rap song titled "Dipset Anthem." A dozen people aged 15 to 21 have been prosecuted.

So far this year, Rochester has recorded four homicides. None of the victims was under 30.

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Although Rochester, a metropolitan region of 735,000 people on Lake Ontario's shore, is a generation or two removed from its heyday as an engineering hub famed for Kodak film and Xerox copiers, the old starchy moniker of Smugtown lingers in its prosperous, overwhelmingly white suburbs.

But at its heart is a shrinking, segregated city beset by high concentrations of poor and an accompanying litany of deep-seated social ailments. They are most acute in the Crescent, a bleak ring of black and Latino neighborhoods where 80 percent of homicides occur from year to year.

The vast majority of homicide suspects and victims are black men aged 16 to 25, often with some involvement in the drug trade and other crimes, said John Klofas, a criminal justice professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. While the national homicide rate for this group is 147 per 100,000, it has ballooned to 520 in the Crescent.

The city finished 2003 with 25.9 killings per 100,000 people, by far the worst rate in New York state and high on national rankings. In contrast, New York City's rate was 7.3 in 2002, and the nation's was 5.6.

Factors behind Rochester's high murder rate over the years have included a lagging upstate economy, flourishing drug pipelines to New York City, Houston and Toronto and a disturbing dropout rate in city high schools.

During Robert Duffy's tenure as police chief, starting in 1998, city officials have shown willingness to experiment -- from staging community forums and an unusual drug summit to calling in state troopers to patrol high-crime precincts and employing statistical mapping to target drug activity.

Kennedy's model for attacking violent groups could provide the crucial next step, said District Attorney Mike Green. It uses what he called "reverse peer pressure."

"In the past, the peer pressure might have been, `Stand up for yourself, don't let anyone disrespect you, get your revenge,"' Green said. "Hopefully now, the message may be, `Wait a minute, you can't afford to take us all down with you."'

Green dismissed concerns that innocent people will get entangled. "I will defend until I'm blue in the face our right as law enforcement officials to target violent criminals," he said.

Besides painstaking investigations, the strategy relies on a coalition of community activists knowledgeable about street activity. One community tip in December enabled police to flood a zone and catch three armed suspects plotting a vendetta against Dipset.

Kennedy estimates two-thirds of all killings of young people here are tied to group activity. "In the worst cases you get whole neighborhoods that are held hostage by half a dozen people," he said.

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Craig Brown, who had endured his father's suicide and dropped out of school during a rebellious period, seemed to grow up and take on responsibility in the years before he died, family members said. He earned a general equivalency diploma and entered the apprenticeship.

"He was just happy being on his own, doing his own thing, which he'd wanted for so long," said his mother, Carolyn, who holds onto the memory of a hug from her son when he got off a passing bus after spotting her on the street. "And then," she added, "he was gone."

Craig frowned on smoking, drinking and excessive partying, said his sister, Tameka, 23, with whom he lived. "He was kind of an advocate for living right," she said. The day he died, a roofing company left a message on her answering machine offering him a job.

She only learned recently about Operation Ceasefire, but hopes it will make a permanent difference.

"I didn't think he would die in vain, I really didn't," she said, her eyes brimming with tears.

Associated PressCopyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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