Murders and non-fatal shootings have been soaring in cities across the United States. One reason is a phenomenon that police refer to as “ping pong murders”—a cycle of retaliatory violence that can spiral out of control. Before that happens, public officials must take quick and decisive action to cut the cycle off.

Ping pong murders are a deadly serious phenomenon. Imagine that two gangs in a city occupy territory in adjoining neighborhoods. A member of Gang A kills a member of Gang B over drugs, money, a territorial dispute, an old grudge, or a passing insult. If the murderer is quickly arrested, incarcerated, and prosecuted, the score on the streets will be roughly even. But if the murderer runs free, Gang B will take matters into its own hands by killing a member of Gang A. Hence the ping pong metaphor: they take a shot, we take a shot, they take a shot, we take a shot.

The result is a vicious circle that generates an escalating number of often-unsolvable homicides. One murder becomes five murders and five murders become 25 murders, risking a full-scale epidemic of shootings. The violence spills over into the prison system, too, as incarcerated gang members transfer the street dispute and score-keeping into the prison community. There, the violence may take on new dimensions. A killing between two gangs can turn into a dispute involving multiple individuals, before spilling back out onto the streets. One killing can spawn an interconnected web of violence that ensnares everyone it touches.

Such retaliatory violence is driving much of the current increase in shootings. Take New York, which saw a 97 percent increase in shootings in 2020 and is exceeding those numbers in 2021; the NYPD attributes roughly half of the shootings in the city to gang-related violence. Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, put it bluntly: “The shootings we are seeing are mostly gang shootings, which means they’re fueled by retribution. One shooting begets another shooting begets another shooting.” Chicago is suffering from similar problems. “Gun violence,” says Northwestern University sociology professor Andrew Papachristos, “is tragic, but, in the majority of cases, is decidedly not random.” Papachristos found that out of more than 100 people shot in the city during a single 2020 weekend, over a third of the shootings involved specific, interrelated gang networks. In Atlanta, the tony neighborhood of Buckhead has also been rocked by gang violence. And Los Angeles is witnessing ping pong murders and shootings as well. After a large spike in shootings and homicides in 2020, the numbers keep getting worse. In 2021, nonfatal shootings in L.A. are up 65 percent, and homicides have increased by 35 percent over already-surging numbers. LAPD chief Michel Moore says that escalating gang violence is a major factor: “We’ve seen an increase in retaliation . . . and other types of gang-related disputes.”

Unfortunately, the problem is at least partially self-created. To be sure, the pandemic played a role, with masks impeding investigations and court dockets interrupted. So did last summer’s civil unrest. But decisions by progressive prosecutors to ignore drug trafficking and gun offenses leave dangerous gang members on the streets and the police without leverage. Demands from political leaders and the media that the police pull back from street enforcement were unforced errors that weakened the criminal-justice system and encouraged murder and mayhem.

As the cycle gets going and grudges become entrenched, clearing the homicides with arrests becomes increasingly difficult. Of the three strategies that authorities have historically pursued to cut it off, two require substantial time and resources; one requires foresight and guts.

The “pull every lever” strategy targets gangs with carrots and sticks. Authorities remind gang members that they have options in life besides crime and help steer them to those opportunities, while alerting the gangs that they are in the law’s crosshairs. (Without the stick of incarceration, the carrot is worthless: gangs don’t hold hands, sing kumbaya, and stop killing each other just because somebody asks nicely.) If the individual gang members persist in their violence, then the entire gang is targeted for prosecution for drug trafficking, weapons, and conspiracy charges, which also can be used as leverage to gather information about the homicides. A team of prosecutors is dedicated to the specific gangs, while agents from federal or local law enforcement identify and investigate the members. Entire neighborhoods may be brought before a grand jury to testify in confidence about which gangs and gang members are causing the violence. If the strategy succeeds, the gangs will be destroyed, and the homicides solved, after years of investigations and prosecutions.

This approach is effective but difficult. Federal and local prosecutors have used it to cut murders and shootings in large, medium, and small cities. Operation Ceasefire in Boston cut the gang homicide rate; Project Safe Neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia, reduced overall shootings; and Operation Silent Night in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, cut homicides to zero for years and shootings to a fraction of prior levels. But these efforts took significant investments of time and money.

The second strategy relies on subtler work by prosecutors and investigators, though it, too, requires time and skill to develop. While gang members are unlikely to provide incriminating information about their own associates, they sometimes will provide information about the criminal activities of other gangs. If a member of Gang A tells law enforcement what Gang B is up to, then Gang B can retaliate by telling the police what Gang A has been doing. In this approach, retaliation is turned into a tool for law enforcement, and the gangs manage to destroy each other through criminal convictions.

The third, and best, approach is simply not to let the cycle start. This approach requires empowering law enforcement to send drug dealers, felons with guns, and other violent criminals to jail. Both police and criminal offenders should have confidence that a good investigation will end up with the offender in jail for the appropriate amount of time. Citizens need to know that prosecutors and police stand as a sword and shield to protect them from those who would do them harm. Experienced, no-nonsense prosecutors need to spearhead these efforts.

Today, cities led by prosecutors with actual experience in tackling complex violent crime, such as Detroit and San Diego, have a chance to fight their way out of this cycle. Cities with progressive prosecutors who lack real-life experience in prosecuting and disrupting violent crime have virtually no chance of understanding what is happening, much less stopping it. Past experience as a politician, public defender, or community organizer is of little use when bullets are flying and young men are dying.

The cycle of ping pong murders is already underway. Only a coordinated effort by the police, prosecutors, and the courts will stop it. Politicians and civic leaders need to confront the problem—and that means letting the criminal-justice system do its job.

Photo: D-Keine/iStock


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