CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Violent crime is a problem many cities have to grapple with, but few have seen as much success as High Point, North Carolina. A few years ago, High Point had one of the highest violent crime rates in the state. But in 2004, the city reconfigured a plan called Operation Ceasefire, and they've seen dramatic results including a 64 percent decrease in violent crime. Now High Point is expanding the plan to include strategies that deal with robberies and domestic violence, and they're helping other similarly sized cities deal with violent crime as well. Marty Sumner is High Point, North Carolina's chief of police, and he was kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk with us. Welcome.
MARTY SUMNER: Yeah. My pleasure to join you.
HEADLEE: So, as we mentioned, your city had one of the highest levels of crime, if not the highest of any city in North Carolina at the time. Take us back to that moment. What kind of crime were you dealing with in High Point?
SUMNER: We had a lot of gang-related street shootings, a lot of gun violence, a lot of violence centered around drug markets. And our violent crime had gotten to the place that, for a city of 75,000 per capita, it was much higher than the larger cities of North Carolina. We were averaging close to 20 homicides a year. And that's what really sparked the chief at that time, Lou Kios (ph), and some other community groups in the city to say what else can we do?
HEADLEE: What exactly does Operation Ceasefire do that's different than other strategies you've used to deal with gangs or violent crime?
SUMNER: Well, it's an intervention ahead of time. So very few people commit most of the violent crime. If you can identify those folks, which you can and we have lots of database, and we've had a lot of contacts with them, you can get the attention of this group. You can make some examples out of some and put the others on notice. And with very good follow through, then these guys are rational and what you do make senses to them.
HEADLEE: So help me - walk me through one of these interventions as you say, preventive interventions in violent crime. You bring in someone that you've identified as, I guess, a troublemaker. And what do you say - who's in the room and what do you say?
SUMNER: Right. We would identify one particular behavior so right now we're doing it for domestic violence. And we would have - we have already made a few prosecution examples out of some of the worst. The next way - the next level, based off their record and their recent criminal history, we bring them in. We sit them down. It's at City Hall. Community speaks to them first, and tells them exactly what they're doing is wrong and this community is not going to tolerate it.
HEADLEE: When you say community, what do you mean? Who is it that's representing the community?
SUMNER: It's a pretty broad representation of service providers, there's clergy, there are city leaders. And in some places, where we do drug market interventions there's actually neighborhood-level community participants there as well. And their message is clear - what you're doing is wrong and we support the police. We're willing to help you if you make a change tonight. But the strong message law enforcement is about to give you, we're in 100 percent support of.
And then we come in with all of our law enforcement partners and prosecutions - federal and state, and make it very clear that we know what you're doing. And this is what happens. We hold these few examples up. These are the guys who didn't get a chance. And here's the kind of sentences they're facing. Your record is very similar to theirs, and here's what you're facing after tonight. Your case is going to be treated differently. We can monitor you. We can monitor a few. We can't do it for everybody. And they walk away that night. And they have to make a choice.
HEADLEE: When you bring them in, do they generally have a lawyer with them - an attorney?
SUMNER: No, this is - primarily these gentlemen and ladies are on probation. They're supervised...
SUMNER: ...Probation, so they're compelled to be there by their probation officer. We're not accusing them of anything that night so they don't really need or would we allow a defense attorney to be present. There are defense attorneys present that speak and tell them stories about how others who didn't get the message, how they tried to help them at trial, but they didn't - wasn't able to do much for them. So this is just a meeting that we're trying to get your attention ahead of time. There's no accusations. You're not a suspect tonight. This is to prevent a further act of violence.
HEADLEE: Pardon me, but it almost sounds like a parent and grandparents - like an entire family calling in a recalcitrant child for discipline.
SUMNER: I think the psychology's very similar.
HEADLEE: Why does this work? If you have somebody that you've identified as, I guess, hardened criminal might be the proper term - somebody who has offended and broken the law over and over in sometimes violent ways, how would this work where the possibility of life in prison wouldn't?
SUMNER: Well, the possibility of life in prison's out there. But here's the thing, most of these gentlemen don't have any idea that law enforcement is aware of who they are. They walk about thinking that nobody knows what they're doing and nobody cares. They have a really unrealistically low risk assessment for themselves. They really don't even know how much time they're facing if they picked up and gun and committed another violent act. They don't know. They've forgotten half the things that they've done.
So what this meeting does is puts them on notice - we do know who you are. We know about your criminal record. We're going to be keeping close tabs on you. By the way, here's a review of your criminal record to date. And if you get another gun offense or if you're trafficking in drugs, here's the time you're facing and you need to factor that in. That's the custom part of the notification, which I think is - they got enough information to make good decisions. Whereas before, they really didn't have anything and they thought that nobody was paying attention to them.
HEADLEE: So even if this works for the next three or six months, maybe even as much as a year, how does it continue to work year after year?
SUMNER: Well, that's the trick. You have to continue to use the - it's a real law enforcement tool. And when you quiet one group down, you got to be ready to address the next group or apply it in different ways, which is what we did. When gun violence in the street went down, then we applied it to drug markets. When the drug markets shut down, we applied it specifically to a gang robbery problem we had. And now, really, what remained of our violence - we were averaging now - we're averaging about three homicides a year and we're 108,000. But those three were mostly domestics so we have reapplied it now to domestic. So continually applying it to whatever group is causing your violent crime is the secret of how you make it sustainable.
HEADLEE: So Chief Sumner, I understand that other police departments in other states, in other cities are sending officers to train with you. For smaller cities that are, you know, the same size's as High Point, I can understand how that works. But how would this apply in a big city like Chicago? I understand that Chicago has sent representatives to learn from you.
SUMNER: Well, what you're going to do is in a larger - much larger city, you've got to use prioritization. So maybe you couldn't roll it out citywide, but you can do it in this precinct over here where you've got the most high-violent crime incidents. So we explained to them how it works, and we explained to them the follow-through and all the things that have to be done after the fact. And you decide in your city how it makes sense, whether you want to do it citywide or take smaller areas.
HEADLEE: But, you know, I mean, I have to say, there have been a lot of very highly publicized cuts to police forces and police departments. How do you make something that is this labor-intensive work in a city maybe where their budget is stripped to the bone?
SUMNER: Well, in the very beginning, it's a little bit more labor-intensive. However, when you get these - most of the cities see very sharp declines in violent crime. And it becomes self-sustaining then because the time that you would've been spent investigating that last murder or that very bad robbery or that shooting, that's time that the investigators get back. See, our violent crime now is 64 percent less than it was when we started this in 1997. So you've got to make a little bit of a time investment up front, but really it's not that labor-intensive whenever you consider, you know, the other offenses, how long they take.
HEADLEE: Marty Sumner is the chief of police in High Point, North Carolina, kind enough to join us on the phone from his office there. Chief Sumner, thank you so much.
SUMNER: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.