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Philly’s Gang Violence Strategy Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why.

Philadelphia implemented the “focused deterrence” model of gang policing, which includes the promise of critical social services. The reality is much different.

Spencer Platt / Getty

Philly’s Gang Violence Strategy Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why.

Philadelphia implemented the “focused deterrence” model of gang policing, which includes the promise of critical social services. The reality is much different.


In the spring of 2013, Philadelphia joined a growing cohort of cities in implementing a gang suppression strategy known as “Focused Deterrence,” in which cities offer social services to alleged gang members in tandem with civil and criminal sanctions. Following any South Philadelphia shooting, the DA’s office offered social services to — and implemented sanctions against — the suspects and other gang members.

Focused Deterrence has been hailed as success by city officials in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where it was implemented, which has long been besieged with gun violence. A Temple University evaluation found that shootings in the neighborhood dropped 35% in the program’s first two years. “It’s a commitment to not only stopping shootings, but also having individuals who are likely to perpetuate them get help,” says Caroline McGlynn, head of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Gun Violence Task Force, which oversees the program.

Focused Deterrence works like this: law enforcement compiles a list of alleged gang members, which changes frequently; McGlynn describes the list as a “moving piece of intelligence.” Individuals on the list are summoned to a “call-in” where district attorneys and police officers inform them that if they or any of their fellow gang members engage in a shooting, for 30 days they will hit them with an array of punitive measures such as increasing bail, boosting their families’ names to the top of the list to have their utilities shut off if they are in arrears, prosecuting any outstanding warrants, and requiring more frequent parole or probation check-ins if they are under supervision. Alternatively, a social worker offers an “out” via education and employment if the young men agree to disassociate from the violence.

Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence operates on a shoestring annual budget of $130,000 — a small percentage of the annual $60 million the city spends on anti-violence programs. Cities like New York CityOakland, and New Orleanshave launched similar programs in recent years involving complex multi-agency relationships.

“Yes, we can say shootings went down,” said Caterina Roman, the Temple criminal justice professor who led the recent evaluation. “But I’m not going to stand up there and say this is the greatest model.”

Partly because crime statistics in the short time frame captured by the Temple study are statistically noisy, it’s difficult to determine a cause of South Philadelphia’s decline. Indeed, in the period after the data used for Roman’s study, shootings have fluctuated in South Philadelphia, according to information provided to In Justice Today by the Philadelphia Police Department. The number of shootings jumped to 96 last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013, the first year of Focused Deterrence. This year shootings dropped 21 percent versus this time last year.

Former Philadelphia Police Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who was heavily involved with the Focused Deterrence rollout in 2013, questions the marriage of increased law enforcement pressure and social services. Speaking about the strategy generally, not the current program in Philadelphia, he says: “When that young person says to social services, ‘I want out,’ do you really have the resources to help that person? If you don’t, you’re minimizing the trust you have with the community.”

Reuben Jones, the former director of social services of Focused Deterrence, recently declined to reapply for the position because of his concerns that the city did not deliver the employment and education assistance it promised. Jones led social services from 2013 to earlier this year, serving as its sole fulltime caseworker. Since his departure on September 29, the position moved to the city’s new Office of Violence Prevention; there are now two caseworkers.

Managing social services for potentially hundreds of young people is an enormous task for just a pair of employees to handle. During a July 2016 court hearing a member of Philadelphia Police Department’s gang taskforce, Officer Matthew York, testified that there were upwards of 1,500 individuals on the list.

The job “compromised” his principles, Jones told me. “My role was to connect the guys to the resources that were available,” he explains, “Unfortunately, though on paper it sounds great — the city has all these resources — for all practical purposes they weren’t there.”

Jones, who himself is previously incarcerated, says that despite his limited resources he made significant headway with his clients. Corroborating this, mentee Lamere Nathaniel says that he knows at least 30 people who Jones helped get a job. “Sometimes he would use his own car and waste his own gas to bring where we needed to go,” he says. Another mentee, Keith Davis, also praised Jones: “He’s is a convicted felon himself so he came from the same life that I came from. And he is where I’m trying to go. Any time that my head is out of it I can call him to get back on track.”

But the only formal employment pipeline Jones had to offer his clients was a city-funded 90-day gig at Goodwill. “The goal was that there was supposed to be something sustainable after that, but there never was,” Jones says. He hustled to find businesses who would employ his clients and he asked the mayor’s office to use its clout and resources to encourage such hiring. “My constant battle was, ‘Hey, let’s get the unions involved,’” he says, “or, ‘Can we get the business community involved?’ That fell on deaf ears.”

Julie Wertheimer, the city’s chief of staff for criminal justice, responds that she recognizes the need to increase social service and employment opportunities, and that there are citywide workforce development initiatives in the works, some tailored to people with criminal records, to be unveiled soon. She also notes that she doesn’t think this strategy will work in every neighborhood.

Jones’s critiques are echoed by others around the country. The head of social services for the Baltimore’s Focused Deterrence program similarly left in protest in 2015. David Kennedy, criminologist and architect of the strategy Focused Deterrence is based on, Operation Ceasefire, acknowledged in phone interview with me that by and large “the social services element had been a miserable failure.”

And the type of gang database used by Philadelphia in its Focused Deterrence program is increasingly coming under fire in cities across the country, such as Chicago, for being both racist and inaccurate. Advocates say that these databases label people gang members just because they committed crimes in areas labeled “gang territory.”

Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, calls the promise of services “window dressing” to sell a strategy of Focused Deterrence to the community that ultimately isn’t sustainable. “Yes, if we do an intensive intervention we can disrupt things and will get some drop off in shootings,” he says. “But the time horizon tends to be fairly short.” According to Vitale, Programs such as Cure Violence — where former gang members are tasked with mediating disputes, without law enforcement — is a better model to follow. (A version, called CeaseFire, operates in a few neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.) “I agree the violence is concentrated,” he says. “The universe of people who are engaged in the violence is not huge, it’s somewhat identifiable. [But] targeting them is not being precise. It’s basically throwing a net over all young people of color, and that just seems like a recipe for more mass incarceration.”

How a Dallas District Attorney Reached Her ‘Nixon in China’ Moment

Faith Johnson’s recent indictment of a Mesquite police officer for shooting an innocent man follows years of work by community activists.

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How a Dallas District Attorney Reached Her ‘Nixon in China’ Moment

Faith Johnson’s recent indictment of a Mesquite police officer for shooting an innocent man follows years of work by community activists.


In 1973, 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez sat handcuffed in the front seat of a police squad car beside Dallas, Texas police officer Darryl L. Cain. Rodriguez and his 13-year-old brother had been accused of stealing $8 from a vending machine, and Cain had decided to use a game of Russian roulette to get the boys to confess. The officer opened the barrel of his revolver in front of Rodriguez’ brother David, who couldn’t tell if he was loading or unloading it. He then pointed the gun at Santos’ head and demanded the truth.

The first time Cain pulled the trigger, the gun didn’t go off. The second time, Santos was fatally shot in the head. Cain was later charged with murder and indicted. He served two and a half years in prison. Forensic evidence later established that the Rodriguez brothers hadn’t stolen the money.

“We didn’t have another indictment [in Dallas County] for 40 years, despite hundreds of killings [by police] — elderly people, unarmed people, mentally ill people,” John Fullinwider, Dallas native and longtime community organizer told The Appeal.

Fullinwider first became involved in police accountability activism after helping Rodriguez’s mother, Bessie Rodriguez, pen a letter to then-Attorney General Griffin Bell requesting a federal civil rights investigation into her son’s killing. The Justice Department ultimately declined to charge Cain, but Fullinwider says a letter from President Jimmy Carter lamenting the “brutality and senselessness” of the murder still hangs on Rodriguez’s wall. Sixty-five-year-old Fullinwider went on to co-found Mothers Against Police Brutality, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of mothers who have lost children to police violence created to fight for civil rights and police accountability.

It wasn’t until 2013 that another Dallas County police officer was indicted for using fatal force. This time, former officer Brad Burgess ran over and killed a bicyclist he was chasing in his squad car. (Burgess was acquitted earlier this year by a jury.) That decades-long gap steadily sowed distrust not just between community members such as Fullinwider and police officers, but also between residents and the county’s district attorneys. Dallas County DAs, Republican and Democrat alike, have repeatedly failed to press charges against officers involved in fatal shootings, creating what Fullinwider describes as a “40-year history of complete lack of accountability.”

So, in early November, when Lyndo Jones was shot twice by a police officer after being accused of breaking into his own truck east of Dallas, local community members had little reason to believe that the DA would press charges against Derick Wiley, the officer who fired the shots.

But a month after Jones’ shooting, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson announced that her office would prosecute Derick Wiley’s case “very diligently and vigorously” after a grand jury indicted him on felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by a public servant, D Magazine reported.

At a news conference on Dec. 6 and again in a press release shared with In Justice Today, Johnson extended her “thoughts and prayers” to Jones, who survived, and said she wanted to “reassure the citizens of Dallas County that my office is committed to seeking justice. It is my responsibility to get it right, which is why I am always thorough before making any decision regardless of the timeline.”

Before the grand jury indictment, activists criticized Johnson for not pressing charges more quickly. In late November, Dallas-based minister Danielle Ayers expressed frustration to NBC DFW: “We stand here time and time again, and nothing changes, so for us it is about directly speaking to D.A. Faith Johnson.” Shortly after Jones was shot, his attorney told local ABC reporters that Johnson’s “failure to file charges extremely taints the judicial process because it’s a signal to [the] grand jury that this is not a case they should indict.”

The hesitance of prosecutors to charge police is often credited to the close working relationship between District Attorney’s offices and local police departments. When Gov. Abbott appointed Johnson, she took her place with strong endorsements from Republican lawmakers as well as law enforcement. Frederick Frazier, president of the Dallas Police Association, said his department “could not be more pleased” with Abbott’s choice.

But according to Fullinwider, the backing of a powerful police union and Republican lawmakers has allowed Johnson to hit unique sweet spot in what is now an overwhelmingly blue county. The combination of pressure from community organizers coupled with a heightened national awareness of police violence, along with the support from the traditionally “tough on crime” crowd, has created an atmosphere in which it is politically safe for Johnson to challenge officers who step over the line.

“Faith Johnson is having a Nixon in China moment,” said Fullinwider. “You’ve got a DA who cannot be attacked from the right, and you’ve got the public demanding more accountability.”

In April, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was fatally shot in a Dallas suburb by officer Roy Oliver as he drove away from a party with his friends after the officer heard gunshots. (The police department later concluded the gunshots came from the parking lot of a nearby nursing home, and had nothing to do with the party or with Edwards and his friends.) By May 6, Oliver had been fired and arrested on a murder charge. By mid-July, the grand jury indicted the former officer. DA Johnson told reporters that she believed the indictment would send a message to other officers: “If you do wrong, we will prosecute you.”

Edwards’ murder quickly rose to prominence after his family’s attorney spread the word to national news outlets, drawing attention and outrage from anti-police brutality advocates nationwide. Between local and national protests, the baldly unjust circumstances of the shooting, and Edwards’ status in his community as a well-loved high school football player and straight-A student (“It shouldn’t matter, but it does,” notes Fullinwider), the prosecution of Oliver posed little risk or controversy for Johnson.

Wiley’s is the third prosecution by Johnson’s office of a police officer since her appointment in December 2016. In June, charges were brought against Dallas officer Christopher Hess for the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Genevive Dawes. Still, the pursuit of convictions by prosecutors against police officers remains a challenge and a rarity. And it’s worth noting that both Hess and Wiley were charged with aggravated assault, rather than murder.

In spite of the growing number of indictments of police officers from grand juries and the county DA in Dallas, Fullinwider says it’s still too early to call this a trend.

“It’s great there’s a few more indictments now, but 99 and a half percent of the time, a policeman can still do anything to you,” says Fullinwider. “We believe that the growing strength of the movement here, along with the national movement, has kept the police from being as trigger happy as they used to be. We’re going to stay on that.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy

Flanked by local advocates in Detroit during a meeting are (second from left) DeAndre Levy, Anquan Boldin and Don Carey, former and current players for the Detroit Lions
Angela LaChica

These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy


Just last week, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery found out he would spend yet another Christmas behind bars in Louisiana. He has spent more than 50 Christmases there, but he thought this year might be different. The parole board was set to hear his case for release, but on the day of the hearing, the board delayed it.

In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president, a judge sentenced the then 17-year-old Montgomery to life without parole. America is the only place in the world where prosecutors regularly try kids as adults and request that kids be sentenced to die behind bars with no hope of freedom.

But Montgomery now has a second chance, thanks to a string of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized that kids are different from adults. They have underdeveloped brains, impairing judgment and impulse control, and are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. Unsurprisingly, those who make their way into the criminal-justice system are often themselves victims (pdf) of physical abuse, sexual abuse, extreme poverty, and trauma at elevated levels.

Because of these differences, the Supreme Court eliminated life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder, and severely limited it for kids charged with murder, ruling that only the “irreparably corrupt” can receive a juvenile life without parole sentence. And in 2016, in Henry Montgomery’s appeal, the court made that decision retroactive.

Montgomery is now one of the more than 2,100 “juvenile lifers” in America’s prisons waiting to plead his case.

Still, the sentence prevails, especially in Michigan — where we’ve all lived and either played sports or coached. While 19 states and the District of Columbia have formally eliminated juvenile life without parole, and while prosecutors in most states almost never seek it, district attorneys in Michigan, Louisiana and a few isolated pockets are leading the charge to keep kids behind bars. Forever.

Take Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. As of July of 2016 (pdf), Wayne County had more than 150 people with juvenile life without parole sentences — the second highest in the country. Ninety percent of those kids are black, even though black people make up just 39 percent of the population. The elected prosecutor, Kym Worthy, has pushed to maintain the original life sentence in nearly 40 percent of the juvenile life without parole cases even though the Supreme Court has said only the rare kid should qualify. Jessica Cooper, the elected prosecutor in nearby Oakland County, Mich., is asking for death behind bars in almost 90 percent of the proceedings.

During our recent Detroit listen-and-learn tour focused on juvenile justice, several of us heard moving stories about those juvenile lifers who have now been given a second chance. We met Edward Sanders, who at 17 was sentenced to life without parole for participating in a drive-by shooting even though he was not the shooter. His accomplishments behind bars are remarkable. He served on a Michigan committee to help improve relations between prison staff and inmates. He received his bachelor’s degree, took a paralegal course, and served as a resident jailhouse lawyer, helping other inmates with their pleadings. He even taught classes. And in July of this year, after more than 40 years in prison, he was resentenced and paroled.

But there are hundreds of people like Edward Sanders who are no longer a danger to society and have something to contribute. Like Sanders, they should be given an opportunity to show they have changed and earn their release.

When prosecutors like those in Michigan ask to maintain juvenile life without parole sentences, they are saying that people who received lengthy sentences as kids should not have the opportunity to plead their cases to a parole board even after serving decades for their crimes — no matter how changed or how successful they have been in classes or programs. That’s a startling claim to make about a kid who committed a crime before he or she could vote, order a drink, join the military or, for some, drive a car.

These prosecutors are simply refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate. That should change. They should let individuals convicted as children plead their cases to a parole board after spending decades in prison, exercising empathy instead of relying on overly harsh juvenile sentences. State legislators can also pass legislation to end juvenile life without parole. We place trust in our elected officials to follow the law and do the right thing, but they are failing us. We call on our elected leaders to stop betraying the public trust, and to end juvenile life without parole forever.


Stan Van Gundy is head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver are current NBA players for the Detroit Pistons. Anquan Boldin and DeAndre Levy are former NFL players for the Detroit Lions.
This article was published in partnership with The Root.

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