An Anti-Violence Program Gone Wrong Shows How Gang Policing Is Criminalizing Whole Communities

Alleged members of the “Big Money Block Boyz” (East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office)

This article was published in collaboration with The Nation.

January 12, 2018, Shortly after Democrat Sharon Weston Broome became mayor of Baton Rouge last January, her office was informed that the Justice Department was freezing payments and possibly canceling a grant that had allocated to the city over $3 million during the past five years to help reduce violent crime in Baton Rouge. The Department of Justice cited missed reports from the previous mayoral administration, as well as a near complete lack of spending on social services — one of the requirements of the grant.

The grant had been funding an initiative known as Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination (BRAVE), which used data-driven models to identify youths at risk of committing violence, and, supposedly, steer those youths towards social services, allowing them an exit from possible criminal activity. Another part of the grant was designated for increased policing in high-crime areas, with a special focus on breaking up gangs. Broome had run on police reform, and her new administration quickly came up with a plan to salvage the program, but it was too late. In June, the Department of Justice canceled the grant. Still, it allowed Broome to spend the remaining $1.7 million of the unspent funds on the social services for which they were originally intended.

Broome’s office began quickly distributing the funds to local service providers, focusing on mentorship programs, arts camps, and job readiness trainings, many of which had been included in the original grant proposal. One of those grants was given to Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a prominent member of the community who had been integral to the weeks-long protests that sprang up following the police killing of Alton Sterling the summer before. Reed was awarded a contract to offer counseling services to teens identified at most risk of committing violence. A few weeks later however, Reed became embroiled in controversy after remarks at a Metro council meeting, where, furious that the officers who killed Sterling has not been prosecuted, he declared the recent shooting of six Baton Rouge police officers a form of justice.

“The fact that our federal tax dollars have gone to someone like Arthur ‘Silky Slim’ Reed is downright repulsive,” said Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy after Reed’s comments. Following Kennedy’s lead, some on the right took aim at Weston Broome, a Black woman, for putting Reed on the project’s payroll while questioning why money from the Justice department was being spent on social services at all and not on law enforcement. By September, all of the social service contracts for BRAVE had been canceled — leaving over a million dollars unspent.

As the program collapsed, another defender stepped in: East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, one of BRAVE’s architects. There was no reason that BRAVE should be scrapped just because contracts had been mis-allocated, he argued. Moore’s office was benefitting from the less controversial part of the grant: funding for increased policing and prosecution. BRAVE’s federal funding, which began in September 2012, specifically provided the District Attorney’s office and the Baton Rouge Police Department with the capacity to pursue data-driven gang policing. For Moore, the grants had worked wonders in helping his office bring large gang-indictments.

“The fact that our federal tax dollars have gone to someone like Arthur ‘Silky Slim’ Reed is downright repulsive”

The combination of gang policing and social service funding that characterized BRAVE, at least on paper, reflected its origins in a criminology theory known as “Ceasefire.” “Ceasefire” has been marketed as a more humane and precise form of law enforcement, but is now being used to hold large groups of people responsible for the conduct of a few. The result is a program that sounds progressive on its face, but has been used repeatedly in a form that focuses solely on its most carcercal aspects. The collapse of BRAVE reveals not just a program in turmoil, but a theory that may be far less progressive than it seems.

“Operation Ceasefire,” also known simply as “Ceasefire,” was developed by a Boston-based criminologist named David Kennedy in the early 1990s. According to Kennedy, because crime “does not occur evenly” across a city, neither should policing. The first part of Kennedy’s model involves mapping out crime data, encouraging police to focus on violent parts of every city — almost always low-income communities of color. The theory went that to help reduce gun violence in these mapped areas, police would reach out directly to groups of individuals considered “at-risk” and offer them social services as an alternative to incarceration. These services were offered at a “call-in,” often held in a police precinct, with cops and prosecutors warning individuals they were being watched by police closely and if they were to commit a crime, they would be arrested. Surveillance, which was done mostly through on-the-street police observations (and, increasingly, also social media) was central to the theory — to identify these violent groups, and to feed its reliance on mapping, the model overwhelmingly relied on the use of a constant stream data produced by increased police presence.

Following the program’s introduction in Boston, “Ceasefire” was implemented nationally in cities ranging from New York, New Orleans, and, beginning in 2012, Baton Rouge. Many cities gave Kennedy’s model a different name — in New York, a program goes by “Operation Crew Cut,” in New Orleans, “NOLA For Life,” and in Baton Rouge, it was “BRAVE.” In each iteration, Kennedy advised the programs from his research center at John Jay College in New York. Hailed by both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments, Kennedy has become the most celebrated criminologist in America, with a best-selling book called Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America published in 2011 that earned blurbs from both former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell. Kennedy has repeatedly been hailed by reporters as the mind behind a sort of “Moneyball” for policing, in which large amounts of data reveal those most likely to violently offend.

But Kennedy’s model isn’t the clear success that its adherents claim it to be. In almost every iteration, “Operation Ceasefire” has failed to meaningfully reduce violence. And its emphasis on large-scale gang indictments, which work to criminalize entire social networks, risks incarcerating large numbers of young people, despite Kennedy’s claims that his method focuses on deterrents and mobilizing communities against violence. In his memoir, Kennedy blames the programs’ failings on inadequate funding and inconsistent implementation. The one part of the model that typically appears to function however, are the large-scale gang indictments. In New York City, more than 2,000 people have been arrested for gang activity in the last year and a half. In New Orleans, at least 106 people were indicted for gang activityduring its Ceasefire program. In Oakland, over a hundred people have received gang indictments as part of its ceasefire program.

In 2012, Moore, the East Baton Rouge District Attorney, began looking for ways to cut down on a rising murder rate, which had spiked to 83 murders per year, as part of a trend of increasing homicides in the city stretching back to 2005. Like DAs before him, he turned to the “Operation Ceasefire” model, taking on Kennedy as a consultant and applying for a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which has funded Kennedy’s model for years. Over four years, Baton Rouge received over $3 million from the DOJ to try to reduce violence in two zip codes — 70802 and 70805. But the city never spent $1.69 million of the $3 million in grants it received, and over the course of the program, only 65 youths benefited from the program through social services — less than half the number the city proposed in the grant application.

“I don’t think this represents the highest risk kids,” says Stephanie Kollmann, the policy director at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Children and Family Justice Center, who examined BRAVE’s four annual reports compiled by Louisiana State University. “How are these kids being identified? Because self-identification doesn’t get you your hardest to reach kids. Just because they’re from the right zip codes doesn’t mean they’re the ones they should be talking to.”

According to Lousiana State University’s annual reports for 2013 through 2016, the most popular social service provided to participants was transportation assistance, with 24 people served between 2013 and 2014, 28 served in 2015, and 25 in 2016. Only 65 young people in total took advantage of services. In its last year, only two people completed mental health treatment, and only two people were offered substance abuse treatment. For service providers, the buy-in to the program was clear — millions of dollars from the federal government would be distributed to organizations hit hard by budget cuts under eight years of austerity by former governor Bobby Jindal.

Another way that young people were targeted for participation in the program was through their inclusion in a gang database. About half of the spent money from the grant went to LSU, for the gang database the research institution had designed and was now operating, capable of completing “social network analyses” of suspects.

“The degree of involvement in criminal activities is not usually a factor of inclusion in these databases,” Kollmann says, pointing out that inclusion in a database generally long outlasts criminal involvement, “because there’s no clear guidelines as to how someone gets put into the database. Young people’s involvement in active gang status is a very brief period, maybe two to three years at most. Putting them in a database guarantees lifelong law enforcement attention, however.”

Ceasefire’s emphasis on mapping and targeting specific groups was part a larger trend toward data-driven policing in police departments across the country, with cops increasingly surveilling low-income neighborhoods for information about gang affiliations. Their surveillance isn’t high-tech — it mostly takes the form of looking at the social media accounts of individuals, or by taking photos of individuals during stops on the street and marking down what colors they were wearing, and if they had tattoos.

Once someone has been identified as being at risk, the social services side of Ceasefire should kick in, but Kollmann observes that rarely happens. “What motivation would they have to do anything besides what they’re trained to do which is arrest and prosecute?” Kollmann asks.

“Young people’s involvement in active gang status is a very brief period, maybe two to three years at most. Putting them in a database guarantees lifelong law enforcement attention”

Andrew Ferguson, a professor at the David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, D.C., has studied the growing use gang databases throughout the country and has published a book called, The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement. To him, this presents a fundamental problem to the Ceasefire model.

“One of the problems with predictive policing is that there’s policing involved,” Ferguson explains. “The predictive analytics of trying to identify who might be involved in crimes is good, but why would the answer have to be police? There’s this weird conflict where police and prosecutors are the people who are supposed to be intervening and warning people to go on the right path. But that’s completely contrary to their role…If they’ve convinced themselves someone is a real danger to the community, they’re not going to be selling the importance of social services the way they would be if they were a social worker or a member of the community.”

Within its first full year of operation in 2013, BRAVE claimed it had contributed to a sharp drop in homicides, from 83 in 2012, to 66 in 2013. Whether a single program can take credit for a drop in homicides in a single year is something that criminologists often warn against. Year over year stats are notoriously unreliable and considered “noisy” by statisticians. Homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish declined even further to 63 in 2014, but then shot back up to 78 in 2015.

And Fordham law professor John Pfaff, author of “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform,” warns that BRAVE’s focus on two zip codes alone is “troubling.” “The way they report the data seems likely to overstate BRAVE’s impact,” Pfaff told me, pointing out that the parish as a whole was experiencing a drop in crime, even though BRAVE only focused on those two zip codes. Most “Ceasefire” iterations operate without a control group (such as a similarly violent area without enhanced policing for the model to be compared to), and BRAVE was no exception. This makes it that much harder to actually prove it had a discernible impact. “The way they keep looking at 70802–5 [the two zip codes chosen] in isolation,” Pfaff continued, “not comparatively with the control group, is troubling. Not sure it’s intentional, but it makes it really hard to separate out the effect of BRAVE from whatever else was happening.”

While the social services side of the BRAVE program failed to attract many participants, Moore’s office initiated its first large-scale gang indictments with data provided by the BRAVE program. On April 10, 2014, Moore’s office handed down a twenty-eight person indictment, focusing on a group it had labeled the “Big Money Block Boyz.” Moore claimed that he had told members of the group that they were being surveilled in April 2013, and that they could either participate in the BRAVE program, or be arrested. Moore’s indictment followed through with his threat, using racketeering charges to tie several members of the gang to attempted murder charges.

RICO and Conspiracy charges are a hallmark of data-driven gang policing nationwide and go hand-in-hand with the data collection Kennedy’s model requires. Through the mapping and analyses of social networks that “Operation Ceasefire” needs to function, prosecutors at both the state and federal level have been able to give the appearance of vast criminal organizations operating openly in low-income communities. In New York City, for example, both former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and current Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance have used gang databases to arrest hundreds of people in the city’s public housing project, usually as part of military-style overnight raids. Because those arrested are facing RICO charges, they’re subject to the same sentence required for the actual crime itself, even if they had no part in it that crime. Prosecutors base these conspiracy charges on evidence as slight as social media posts. An October 12th raid in a Bronx housing project charged 33 people with crimes, including some committed by people who were already incarcerated.

Likewise, Moore’s big gang indictment charged the members of the “Big Money Block Boyz” with racketeering and at least five of them with attempted murder. The murder attempt stemmed from a pair of shooting incidents in February of 2014, neither of which left anyone injured — one in which one of the defendants shot at the back of a truck outside a grocery store and one later that day in which another defendant shot at someone’s house. Because of the severity of the charges, the defendants, like many of those arrested in New York, have plead guilty to lesser charges, all of which still carry up to twenty-year sentences in prison. The indictments also create huge problems for public defenders because defendants in these cases are almost always indigent and public defense offices can only defend one of the indicted individuals.

A large-scale gang indictment is “more of a political statement than it is a law enforcement statement,” says Ferguson, commenting on how it has become trendy for politicians and prosecutors to say they’re using data to help drive down crime.

To that end gang databases and social network mapping that “Operation Ceasefire” needs to function has been embraced by politicians from both the left and right. CUNY Law professor Babe Howell has directly traced the rise of data-driven gang policing to the negative publicity tied to the previous prevailing theory in criminology, Broken Windows, which posited that targeting small, quality-of-life offenses such as drinking in public or vandalism would lead to the prevention of serious crime.

“Declaring a problem like gangs is useful for politicians because it allows them to claim a narrower scope for law enforcement,” said Howell. “But as it has played out across the country, it involves a massive amount of surveillance, done in secret, with no opportunity to appeal inclusion in databases. It allows police to surveil anyone they decide to surveil, which has meant the usual suspects, black and brown youth of color, particularly in poor neighborhoods.”

Howell’s research into gang databases has demonstrated the underlying flaw of this supposedly impartial method — by allowing the police alone decide who merits inclusion in a gang database, the databases themselves reflect the prejudices of the police themselves, and entire neighborhoods become sites of organized criminal activity. A program that was meant to end the “dragnet” style of policing has simply created entire criminal networks out of pre-existing communities.

“If you look at Los Angeles or Chicago, and their gang databases, which is based on garbage data, this kind of policing may very well create or reinforce gang problems,” Howell said. “When you take away the ability for people to move out of their neighborhoods or to ever escape these databases, if you block every exit and incarcerate fifty people for the worst things that any of them have done, giving them all felony records, we’re creating a world in which where we very well may actually be creating serious gang problems.”

By incarerating entire social networks of young people, Howell points out, prosecutors and police are planting the seeds for a future where the cycles of poverty and criminality are constantly reinforced, and where neighborhoods are missing young fathers and mothers, as well as sons and daughters who would just be beginning their adult lives.

“To the extent that we’re disrupting communities and taking parents away from their children and preventing people from aging out of these affiliations, we’re creating massive barriers to pro-social development,” Howell said. “This is why gang policing concerns me more than Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk. They’re just not providing an actual escape route to these people at all. It’s all about suppression of the gangs, and not the social services they need.”

By 2015, any effect BRAVE might have had on the murder rate was beginning to wear off, just as that alleged impact was no longer being felt in Baltimore, MilwaukeeSt. LouisKansas City, and other cities where Ceasefire had seen initial gains backslide. Moore’s office reached out to Kennedy to seek guidance on how the program could drive the murder rate back down. In an email discussing next steps for the program from this spring, the Chief of Administration for the District Attorney’s office Mark Dumaine admitted, “We have learned that the call-ins do lose their effectiveness once most members have been invited to attend. [David Kennedy] suggests that we pursue individualized call-ins by bringing community and law enforcement members to the targeted individual’s home. We are pursuing this strategy at this time.” By instructing law enforcement to go directly to people’s homes, however, Kennedy’s most recent advice to the project might just reinforce its most troubling aspects.

With BRAVE shut off from federal funding for now, DA Moore has pledged to continue the work that LSU had been performing on data collection, possibly housing the database in his office’s Crime Strategies Unit. But Moore won’t be without substantial support for long. On October 5th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions relaunched the DOJ’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, a George W. Bush-era enforcement operation which built off of Kennedy’s work in Boston, that promoted federal prosecution of street level gang activity. In a memo to all U.S. Attorneys, Sessions instructed them to use data-driven methods to identify the most violent individuals. On the very same day, with Moore at his side, then acting U.S. Attorney for Baton Rouge, Corey Amundson, announceda “Violent Criminal Enterprises Strike Force” that would continue the policing work that BRAVE performed, just without the social services. As Moore described it at the press conference, the new strike force will be “BRAVE on steroids, with more than just juvenile offenders.” Freed from federal grants that demanded social services, Moore, an aggressive prosecutor who has sought life imprisonment for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles, can now pursue gang indictments much in the same way that New York City does.

“My fear is that what’s going to happen is that we’re going to invest in this big data policing infrastructure in the name of protecting ourselves from gangs,” says Ferguson, “but what we’re going to do is catch up entire communities in the data-driven, big data policing world, and we’re not going to have foreseen the issues in terms of civil liberties and policing that will harm overall crime reduction.”

So the Ceasefire model, which in practice focuses on the use of surveillance and databases, has now become the dominant model for law enforcement in American cities. In Baton Rouge, BRAVE never meaningfully addressed social problems, but offered a major boost to policing and prosecution — the outcome was just more incarceration. No steroids necessary.


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