Richmond agency determined to reduce summer gun violence

DeVone Boggan at ONS in 2010. Photo by Heather Gilligan.

Last year there were 26 homicides in the City of Richmond – and seventeen of them happened in the summer. This year, Office of Neighborhood Safety outreach workers have taken to the streets of North Richmond to try to stop the spike in homicides.

To reach this goal, ONS Director DeVone Boggan created the Summertime Gun Violence Interruption Initiative, also known as Occupy North Richmond. All seven of ONS’s street outreach workers plant themselves in each of the five roadways going into and out of North Richmond. If they see anyone from rival Richmond neighborhoods, they direct them away from the neighborhood.

They do all of this without guns or bulletproof vests. Instead, they count on their relationships with the few trigger-pullers who wreak havoc in the city.

Street outreach worker Kevin Muccular says he knows most of the people involved in gun violence in Richmond through his work with ONS.

“If we were to see somebody who wasn’t supposed to be there,” Muccular said, “I’d make a phone call and tell them it’s a bad idea.”

ONS opened in October of 2007. They target their programs at the one percent of the population of Richmond creating the risk for everyone else–a population that not many others are prepared to serve.

Two years ago they created the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship to formally work with that one percent. At the time they invited the 25 young men who were most likely to shoot or be shot in the next six months. In exchange for holstering their gun, they’d get the support they needed to start changing their lives, including a small stipend.

Through the fellowship, ONS street outreach workers have built strong relationships and trust with a majority of the people involved in gun violence in the city. To keep them alive and out of prison, they’ve helped them to enroll in GED programs, get jobs, attend college, attend parenting classes and get driver’s licenses among other things. And the gun-violence has gone down.

Comparing the four years before the office opened to the four years since, homicides have dropped by 26 percent in the city. Comparing the two years before the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship and the two years after, homicides went down 36 percent and shootings with an injury went down 28 percent, according to ONS analysis.

But those reductions are not enough for DeVone Boggan. Instead of just targeting the individuals most likely to be involved in gun violence, he decided to also focus on a specific geographic area. He chose to focus his team’s efforts in North Richmond because it’s small and containable.

He says that most of last summer’s violence resulted from conflicts between North and South Richmond.

“We are trying to go right in the belly of the beast a very different way,” Boggan said.

Outreach worker Muccular, a former football player, coordinates the placement of street
outreach teams. Peacekeeper Kevin Williams is paired with ONS street outreach workers to patrol the neighborhood. They often wear ONS hats, jackets and jerseys to draw attention to their presence in the area.

Williams says the business of saving lives is inherently a dangerous one. “But the mission is so valuable and so priceless to us,” Williams says “we’ve got to work past our fears.”

Williams grew up on the streets of South Richmond. “I was one of the young men that we deal with every day,” Williams said “I carried weapons, I’ve been shot 4 or 5 times.”

Now he uses that background to connect with the youth ONS targets. He feels like he owes it to the community.

“It’s been a joy to come back to the community I once terrorized,” Williams said of his new role.

Williams especially appreciates how neighborhood residents support ONS’s new strategy. “It’s an awesome feeling to know that people drive up and say thank you for being here,” Williams said.

“ONS are some of the bravest troops in the City of Richmond, period,” said Pastor Henry Washington, who is managing the city’s Ceasefire efforts, another program aimed at reducing street violence.

The fight to end gun violence needs troops, according to James Barker, a North Richmond resident and ONS client. “ONS came into our community and found us. Cause we can’t leave our community, we’re at war with the city,” said Barker. “You can die in this city – that’s how it is.”

Barker used to be involved in the gun-violence but now with the help of ONS he’s stopped using drugs and found a job.

“I’m good with my probation now,” Barker said. “They love me- they used to hate me.”

Barker said that the efforts of ONS have inspired community members to step up.

“Didn’t nobody care till they came around,” Barker said.

There is no way of knowing if and when they have redirected a shooter and prevented a murder, Williams said. But he’s confident that their visibility has been a strong deterrent.

There have been six homicides so far in Richmond this summer – but none were in North Richmond. That is a 65 percent reduction in summertime homicides citywide compared to June through August of last year. “Eleven more people [are] alive today versus last year at this time,” Boggan said via email.

On July 12, a street outreach team ran to the aid of a young man in North Richmond after gunshots went off. They put the young man in their city vehicle and rushed him to the hospital, where they were told if they hadn’t done so the young man wouldn’t have survived.

“So far so good,” said Williams. “If you see us somewhere that’s what we’re doing. We’re saving lives.”

The initiative concludes Friday August 31st.

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