Every Friday at 1 pm Pastor Henry Washington meets at his church — The Harden of Peace Ministries — with other Richmond community members concerned about gun violence. They walk around the parts of Richmond most devastated by violence, handing out anti-violence literature and talking with residents.
“We go out for a good part of the afternoon to saturate these areas with a message of hope,” said Washington.
Another team follows his at 7 pm for night-walks, also engaging neighborhood residents.
The day-walks and night-walks are a unique Richmond twist to the national anti-gun violence strategy known as Ceasefire.
Ceasefire is a gun-violence intervention model that was developed by David Kennedy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Boston in the 1990s. Kennedy found that in any violent community, usually only about 1 percent of the population is participating in the gun violence that is making it dangerous for everyone else. Ceasefire targets that 1 percent.
But Kennedy also realized that in order to reach that 1 percent, law enforcement and community members must work together. In most of these violence-ridden communities, however, relations between the police and the community are contentious. Richmond is no different.
Getting residents involved in Ceasefire meant overcoming a sense of hopelessness and a community-wide feeling that nothing could stop the shooting. Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety Director DeVone Boggan says residents have been numbed by gun violence.
Taking to the streets to talk with each other about the problem is a big first step.
“That’s the brightest light coming out of Ceasefire right now,” Boggan said. “The work they’ve done around day-walks and night-walks has been phenomenal.”
Pastor Henry Washington grew up in Richmond. His father was the first African-American police officer with the Richmond Police Department.
“I started to feel that Richmond needed all the help it could get,” Williams said. “I went from being proud of being from a tough city to being ashamed of all the homicide.”
In 2008 he moved his church from Vallejo to Richmond.
On February 14, 2010 three young men brazenly shot two teenagers at a church service at New Gethsemane Church of God in Christ in Richmond. Washington says that event mobilized local clergy to take action against the gun violence.
“We were in a state of hypocrisy, if you will,” Washington said. The religious community was too distant from the violence and efforts at prevention, he realized. “That’s when my social justice work began to take shape.”
“The reason Ceasefire makes a lot of sense for Richmond,” Boggan said, “is because we really do have a small group of people most responsible for gun violence here, and within that population, have an even smaller group of people dead set on gun violence.”
Boggan believes that the majority of those involved in gun-violence, if offered a lifeline, will take it. He began applying for state CalGRIP grants to develop Ceasefire in Richmond in 2008. Twice they were denied.
“Folks didn’t think that law enforcement was at the transformative mindset that it needed to be at to implement strategy effectively,” Boggan said “Just their perspective.”
So Boggan created his own program that he calls a “ghetto Ceasefire.” The Operation Peacemaker Fellowship began with the 25 young men in Richmond that the program determined to be the most likely to shoot someone or be shot within six months. They call this group verified shooters. Twenty-two agreed to stop shooting in exchange for help changing their lives. (Today the program has expanded to 42.)
When Boggan finally secured a CalGRIP grant to start the Ceasefire program in Richmond in 2011 Washington jumped at the chance to get involved. He is now the interim project manager.
Captain Anthony Williams also joined the effort. Williams was intrigued by the strategy, which went against traditional policing. It meant that instead of heavily patrolling certain neighborhoods, they would focus on specific individuals they knew to be doing wrong.
In the past, they believed that “the more bad guys you locked up the more violence goes down,” said Williams. “Research shows that’s not the case.”
“Working 25 years in law enforcement, I know we can not arrest our way out this problem,” said Williams, who is now the law enforcement manager for Ceasefire.
He says the process has been challenging because everyone comes to the table with different approaches to ending gun violence. He’s sitting at the table with people who’ve done time in prison. “It has taken quite a while to listen, to accept and move forward,” Williams said.
The first step in the Ceasefire process is to address the contentious relationship between law enforcement and the community.
“There’s suspicion to overcome. There’s history to overcome. There’s going to be fingers pointed,” Williams said. “But we’ve committed ourselves to work through it.”
The primary way Ceasefire efforts engage perpetrators of gun-violence is through “call-ins”—meetings with law enforcement and community members.
In Richmond they held their first call-ins in March. First they met with people on probation and parole in Central Richmond and then North Richmond.
At the call-ins law enforcement representatives told the young men that they had to stop shooting and if they didn’t stop the police would bring down the full force of the law on them.
Social service agencies offered the young men access to resources and mentorship.
Pastor Washington says he told them “We love you, but we’ll no longer be hostages in our own neighborhoods. We want to keep you alive and safe.”
The Office of Neighborhood Safety didn’t participate in the call-ins, but the office was prepared to help verified shooters. DeVone Boggan says there were a lot of important lessons learned from the call-ins. He says it is important not to make empty promises to those who were called in.
“The City of Richmond has a lot of service providers but rarely are they in the shape they need to be in to serve this population.” Boggan said.
“These young men [cannot be] portrayed as choosing a path of crime despite a world of fabulous alternatives,” Boggan said. “We don’t have an alternative for them.”
Boggan also says 21 of the 30 people called in by Ceasefire shouldn’t have been there. “They were not shooters,” said Boggan.
Only nine were validated shooters, six of whom were already involved with ONS. Boggan thinks when they looked around the room and saw others there who weren’t involved in gun violence, they didn’t believe that law enforcement knew what was really going on in the city.
Pastor Washington says 25 percent of those called in didn’t heed the warnings issued and have since been arrested or shot.
“There are those who say we are harassing these young men,” Washington said. “But if you’ve ever seen a young man bleeding into the sidewalk, you’ll understand that we’re desperate.”
Captain Williams says it was quite different to make arrests with the support of the community. “We have garnered more community support than we had in the past,” said Williams “but it’s still a tragedy to have to lock up a young man.”
The individuals who were called in will face harsher penalties if they are arrested. “They were given the opportunity to opt out of the violence,” Williams said. “They were specifically told by the DA and the US attorney: ‘There will be no plea bargains.’”
Critics of Ceasefire say the strategy leads to the increased criminalization of youth. Boggan says it is essential that the community and law enforcement work together to implement the strategy effectively and avoid that outcome.
They are planning more call-ins for August. Washington says since most of the people involved in recent gun violence weren’t at the March call-ins, the campgain will also try to take the message to suspected shooters in their own neighborhoods.
“We are open to going to them,” Williams said.
Boggan says it’s too soon to tell if Ceasefire will work in Richmond, but he thinks it deserves a chance. He remains hopeful because of the recent community engagement in ending gun-violence.
“It’s not where it needs to be,” Boggan said “but thank God it’s not where it was.”