BLOG: New approach to policing in York City?

Sean Philip Cotter

Last month, York City Mayor Kim Bracey spoke about hiring a consultant who's had some success nationally implementing policing plans to cut down on gang violence.

David Kennedy, a criminologist who runs the National Network for Safe Communities out of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he's a professor, would run the city $300,000 over three years for his services. Bracey told me this is something her administration hopes to do, with all or most of the money raised from sources that aren't the city government. She wants it in motion in the next few months, she told me in June.

York City moves toward policing reform plan

Bracey said the district attorney gave her Kennedy's somewhat-autobiographical 2011 book "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America." She, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley and city council president Carol Hill-Evans all read the book; council Vice President Michael Helfrich did too, and he and a friend liked the ideas in it so much he bought 50 copies and gave them out to any movers and shakers around the area who'd take them.

Criminologist David M. Kennedy

Now, the council members have been pretty clear: The $300,000 price tag is likely too much for the city to spend on pretty much anything new right now. But if the city can fundraise that sum — i.e., if it won't have to pay for the project — the council members generally said the basic ideas sound good.

So I — in both my capacity as York City Reporter and also Guy Who Lives In The City — figured I had to read the book, too, and minorly outline it, so you don't have to.

Kennedy's deal is a focus on what people call "problem-oriented policing." While there are many problems that plague all kinds of different communities, he reasons, there's only a few that are truly tearing communities apart. And, in Kennedy's opinion, among them are high levels of street violence, and then also the current law-enforcement reaction to it and drugs that's put a huge amount of people — especially people of color — behind bars.

So he further focuses on gun violence, which data shows is in large part is perpetrated only by one or two percent of the population. And, in the inner city, much of it — well more than half, in many cases — comes from conflict between groups, either somewhat formal gangs or just merely neighborhood squads who have some kind of beef with each other. And, he said, police often know who did it, but can't prove it.

This Southside gang graffiti taunted law enforcement, but a joint investigation into Southside that led to federal indictments against 21 purported gang members disproved that taunting claim.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office)

In his book, Kennedy likes to write that his program cut down on the gun-violence problem by asking the mostly young people committing the violence to stop. That's true, but, as you might imagine, there's more to it than that.

First off, he writes, local and federal law enforcement team up to come down hard on whatever group is committing the most violence. An investigation culminates in raids, federal charges and then long federal sentences. Much like what already happened in York City, when that kind of investigation culminated in two dozen Southside gang members being charged federally just under two years ago. (Check out this fascinating read and the links within it from my colleague Liz Evans Scolforo for more info about that.)

How York City crippled a criminal empire

Then, with that hammer looming, law enforcement conducts "call-ins" with members of the other gangs around town, hauling them in to give them a multi-part message. First, polcie say that the next group to shoot someone will face that same kind of massive-scale investigation and federal charges as the group that just got them. And then there's the community voices — parents, teachers, coaches, victims telling the shooters that what they're doing isn't OK, and they won't support it. And, finally, social-services organization such as job-training centers and healthcare providers say that anyone looking for a way out will get one.

After the first call in, the police follow through with their promise: the next shooter's group gets taken down, and then they do another round of call-ins, and so on, until, in theory — and in practice, Kennedy says his work in Boston, Cincinnati and other places shows — groups stop shooting each other.

At the strategy's core are the perceptions three communities have of each other. The police, Kennedy writes, often perceive the "community of the streets" — the people committing crimes — as a bunch of violent sociopaths, and high-crime areas as filled with people who are either complicit or just apathetic. On the flip side, the communities in the area view law enforcement the same way — either apathetic or worse. And then the criminals committing the crimes view the cops as out to get them, and the community as silently giving its approval.

None of these are true, Kennedy says. The cops are trying hard to stop the violence, the communities hate the crime and the people committing it are rational actors who will take a way out if given one, he writes. But the issue — well, one of the myriad issues, but a big one — is none of those groups trusts each other.

So you can see how the call-ins and what leads up to them looks to address this. The police demonstrate specific promises on law enforcement they can follow up on, the communities come out to voice their displeasure and the people involved in the violence are given a way out. And, the thinking goes, this happens without large-scale incarceration.

What would a modern-day York City 'charrette' look like?

The cities the book focuses on are generally bigger than York, and have more fatal shootings. It's important to remember the city of York had eight homicides last year, fewer than the hundreds Baltimore has, than the 100 or so Boston had when this project focused on it, fewer even than the dozens High Point had, though that last one, a city of just over 100,000, is closest to the size of York City, though it's still twice as big.

And it's also worth noting that some of those eight York City homicides weren't gang related; for example, one of the eight was a violent mentally ill man who police shot to death last October when authorities showed up at his Fireside-area home to commit him for mental-health services.

But there were 55 reported shootings in York City last year. And I feel comfortable making the presumably uncontroversial statement that if that number of shootings dropped significantly, it would be great for the city.

York City proclaims gun-violence awareness day

People in many parts of town are scared. I can't count how many times people I've talked to at the scenes of shootings have expressed that feeling to me. They're scared for their own lives, and they're scared whenever their kids play outside. They're scared to sit on the porch, people tell me.

And people from outside the city worry, too — I won't come downtown, people say, it's too dangerous.

A decrease in violence in this city — going along with, importantly the perception it's decreased — would let people let their kids play outside without fear, and would bring folks into town to spend money, helping the city in a variety of ways.

As the reporter covering the city, it's not my place to advocate one way or another for this as the way of doing that. And that's especially fine with me in this case, because I feel I genuinely don't know. (Fun fact about "The Media": This is sort of how we — or at least I — feel about a bunch of local issues; you realize there's an at least somewhat reasonable argument someone somewhere can make for or against pretty much anything.)

So stay tuned as I continue to report on it. Kennedy's office told me it's not going to comment or speculate even in a general sense to the media about York City or anything related to it unless there's a formal agreement in place. Bracey said the goal's to do that by July, but there's only one city council meeting this month, and anything relating to that much money would need to be introduced at one council meeting and voted on in the next one, so there's no way a formal agreement could be finalized until August at the earliest.

If they do bring on Kennedy, his office told me, I'll be able to speak with him or whoever from his organization is managing York City's case.

— Reach Sean Cotter at or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD. Look for his news reporting about York City daily online and in print, and keep an eye out for a new installment of this blog every week, or have Facebook keep an eye out for you: Like the Developing Story page.