Last week I heard David Kennedy (author of the new book Don’t Shoot) and LA Police Chief Charlie Beck talk at the Aloud Program about reducing gang violence. Kennedy’s theory, which has been implemented successfully in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, sounds almost too good to be true. As I understand it, the approach has several parts. First, recognize that the number of people responsible for the vast majority of violence in most cities is relatively small. So concentrate on those people. Next, let the street gangs know that violence will no longer be tolerated. The police will keep track of which gangs are responsible for the most violence, and will make life as miserable as possible for those particular gangs. That gives each gang a powerful incentive to lower their violence profile. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, utilize other forces in the community–peer groups, families, other community institutions–to pressure gang members to put their guns away. What happens? Everybody starts to understand that they are safer and better off if they stop resorting to shooting one another to solve their disputes. And dramatic reductions in gang violence start to occur.
In the question and answer session, audience members kept trotting out one after another pet theory for reducing crime (in this audience mostly liberal pet theories): What about reducing poverty? How about gun control? Why not legalize drugs? The chief and the author acknowledged each of these issues, but showed how none of these approaches has as much effect on the specific problem of gang violence as the so-called “ceasefire” approach. It turns out that if your goal is to reduce gang violence, you just need to focus on that. That means that the conservative nostrums for crime reduction, which Chief Beck recounted with a brief history of the LAPD’s various militaristic responses to gangs over the last couple of decades, don’t work either. Young men pay more attention to their mothers than to the police. Who knew? And if you enlist all available forces in the community to communicate the message that gang violence is no longer acceptable, people get that message.
Can this theory be applied to other types of conflict resolution? The speakers talked about using the ceasefire approach to address problems like terrorism, or to the drug wars in Mexico. The theory probably has even more applications than that.
Think about a continuum of dispute resolution procedures, from the most to the least violent (from outright murder, to a duel, to a fistfight, to a trial, to a dialogue). Progress in reducing violence is represented by making each successive adversarial method of conflict resolution less socially acceptable. For example, the United Nations is supposed to operate on the principle that war is no longer acceptable, and provides a forum for an alternative form of dispute resolution. We haven’t yet succeeded in eliminating war, but we might have had some success in reducing it. The courts were devised for the purpose of eliminating endless blood feuds, and have succeeded in making private revenge less common. Mediation can be thought of as a means of avoiding litigation, in other words, a movement from an adversarial, though non-violent, means of conflict resolution, to a more cooperative approach. To resolve conflict through mediation, we need to persuade people that conventional adversarial methods are wasteful and destructive. But if logical persuasion was not enough to make gang members understand that it is better not to resolve their quarrels with guns, then logic is is probably insufficient to help litigants understand the value of mediation. Eventually, we may need to change the social norms in the community to dissuade people from suing one another. In time, filing suit in court may come to seem as barbaric as calling out an opponent to a gunfight.
(Shorter version originally posted here.)