Joe McCoy is intimately familiar with the violence epidemic in his hometown of Richmond, Calif. Drive-by shootings have long been part of life here, one of the most violent places in the state, as evidenced in part by the bullet holes that dot houses near the railroad tracks dividing Richmond’s rival neighborhoods. A self-described “street person,” McCoy wears black-rimmed glasses and sports a thick black beard flecked with gray. When he drives around the city, he slows frequently to lean out the car window and call out to people walking by, then pulls back in saying, “That’s my brother right there, that’s my brother.”
McCoy is one of six outreach workers employed by the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a city agency. They patrol the streets to tackle the problem of shootings and murders with an approach that seems counterintuitive. They find young men and teens—as old as 25 and as young as 13—identified as likely having been involved in previous homicides and shootings. Then they offer them mentors, access to social services, life-skills trainings and even financial support.
“It’ll be so hot that it’s hard even to talk to people,” McCoy told me last spring. We were driving around Richmond, as he does on an almost daily basis. When we crossed the railroad tracks from North Richmond into Central, McCoy started to point to people who might fall victim to retaliatory violence when tensions are running high between the two areas. “That guy right there, he’d get a pass, because he’s too old,” McCoy said, nodding at a senior citizen walking down the sidewalk. As we rounded a corner, he suddenly pointed to a younger African American man tinkering under the hood of a white pickup parked on the street. “Now that guy there, he’d have been shot.”
ONS offers an alternative. The would-be shooters sign up for a program called Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. Over 18 months, fellows develop and follow a life map—concrete steps they’ve laid out to change their direction in life. In exchange for an agreement that they will put their guns down, they get help from ONS to reach those goals. The assistance includes a $500 monthly stipend in the final nine months of the program for fellows who are following through with their plans. The program also connects fellows to job opportunities and social services.
The outreach workers spend much of their time driving around the city to offer solace in the wake of violent crimes and to develop relationships with young men. Though the approach may seem feel-good and sentimental, it is actually pragmatic. The Richmond method pushes aside moral questions about who deserves help, money and public services and goes to the heart of the homicide problem with one goal: fixing it.
Richmond, a city of about 100,000, is historically working-class, but has long contended with deep pockets of poverty. It is known for gunfire so common that most residents stopped reporting the sound of shots to the police. Until recently, the homicide rate was routinely among the highest in California; in 2009 it was about nine times higher than state and national averages for that year. As in other U.S. cities, poverty and gunfire go hand in hand, with murders being most common in the most desperately depressed neighborhoods.
Enter the Office of Neighborhood Safety. The city council decided to start a violence prevention agency in 2006, when the homicide rate soared so dramatically—to 42 in 100,000 compared to a national rate of not quite six in 100,000—that residents and community leaders began camping out in parks in the most dangerous neighborhoods to try to establish safety and peace on their own. The official mandate of ONS was to serve “active firearm offenders who have avoided sustained criminal consequences.”
Richmond requested help from progressive reformers, including DeVone Boggan. Boggan was CEO of the Mentoring Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to creating programs and policies to encourage the mentoring of young men of color. He advocated mentoring formerly incarcerated youths in particular. He was eventually tapped to be neighborhood safety director of ONS.
Under Boggan’s direction, outreach began in the spring of 2008 with four part-time workers, a staff that eventually grew to seven. All were Richmond natives, and most had served prison time, but had since reformed. They focused on cooling people down after gunfire, taking the edge off anger and sorrow as a way to end the cycle of retaliatory violence.
“We have young men who lost their father 20 years ago to rival neighborhoods,” explains Boggan, who is 47 and a lawyer by training. “Today, that young man will say, ‘Those suckers killed my dad.’ It often is encouraged by some of the elders in the neighborhood, who say, ‘You know those cats over there killed your dad.’”
The outreach approach, as it turned out, had its limits. ONS began with an annual budget of about $600,000, and the agency’s citywide focus was spreading those resources thin. Meanwhile, Richmond’s homicide rate reached a high of 47 incidents in 2009. That year, Boggan also discovered in a meeting with law enforcement officials that a handful of people—about 17 young men—were responsible for most of the shootings in the city. So he decided to focus all ONS efforts intensely on that small group.
This newly tailored approach drew on a strategy pioneered by Gary Slutkin after waves of youth violence started overwhelming cities across the United States in the 1990s. Slutkin, an epidemiologist who examined homicide patterns in Chicago in the mid-1990s, noticed that violence behaved like an infectious disease. The patterns of shootings conformed closely to those of an infectious outbreak, clustering in specific areas. Slutkin posited that, like cholera or TB, the illness spreads from person to person, either because one infects another or because two people share the same environment. “The greatest predictor of violence,” Slutkin explains, “is exposure to violence.”
ONS understands violence as a public health problem and responds with strategies that encourage profound changes in the fellows’ beliefs and behavior. When Boggan launched the Operation Peacekeeper Fellowship in 2010, ONS asked 25 young men, including those identified in the meeting with law enforcement, to come to city hall and consider joining the fellowship program. Twenty-one said yes, forming the first class of fellows. ONS is now on its third cohort of fellows, who attend classes offered by community-based organizations and other nonprofits that teach everything from financial literacy to sex education. Boggan calls the process of going through the fellowship program “mainstreaming,” which means it’s a way to connect fellows to different social networks and alternative resources for survival.
Essentially, the city agency, which until recently has operated on a $1.5 million annual allotment from Richmond’s coffers, steps in where other social services have failed, connecting the most hard-to-reach and destructive young men to education, job training and counseling, and offering a small wage to help them while they make these changes. ONS has also raised substantial funds from California foundations; those contributions are used to pay the fellows’ stipends.
This approach also means that ONS deals with acts of violence wholly outside the criminal justice system, which has caused tension with the Richmond Police Department. The ONS strategy, Boggan says, is sometimes understood as “hugs for thugs,” a softhearted approach that coddles criminals and rewards shooters for their deadly behavior.
“The fact of the matter is, if you look across the country, not just at Richmond, most suspected firearm offenders are walking our streets today,” Boggan says. This goes for many of the young men ONS serves; they may be under investigation by law enforcement, but police often can’t secure enough evidence for an arrest. “What would you rather do: Leave them alone or isolated, depressed or enraged, where they are doing what they already know? Or try something different in changing their mind-set and therefore changing a culture and therefore changing a community?”
Change is, however, both difficult and unsafe. The fellows agree to disavow gunfire with the knowledge that their violent past could catch up with them anytime. Boggan says that ONS staff often see “a deer in the headlights look” when they first try to convince the young men to put their guns down. “They say, ‘Man, that shit y’all talking is going to get me killed.’”
Kamari Ridgle, a former fellow, told me he changed slowly. A charming and flirtatious 20-year-old with a constant smile, he is now a sophomore in community college. In 2010, the year that he started to connect with ONS staff, Ridgle was shot down as he walked to his house from a liquor store in North Richmond. The first round of bullets fired from a car missed Ridgle; the second round took him down. He left the hospital after a year, in a wheelchair he’ll be confined to for the rest of his life.
The shooting was one of several near-death experiences that convinced him to put his gun down. He’d always had a hot temper and he’d never tried to control it before. “I lived a fast life,” he said. “I didn’t think about most of the things that I did. I just did them.” When he joined the fellowship program in 2011, he agreed not to solve his problems with a weapon.
That was also the year that his cousin, Ervin Coley III, was murdered in Richmond.
“I just don’t see a point in it no more,” Ridgle explained. “After seeing how my cousin Ervin got killed, and his friend and my friend Macho, how he dealt with it, it just let me know, it’s not a point in it no more. It was very easy for Macho to send some people over there to find those people who shot Ervin. But he didn’t do that. He let it go. He just maintained.”
“So for me, when I seen that happen, it was just like, no,” Ridgle said. He decided to figure out how to deal with the trauma and the pain differently, a process he describes as ongoing, just as murder and grief in his neighborhood are ongoing. He remains actively involved in ONS as an ambassador and role model for younger fellows.
His friend, Lavonta “Macho” Crummie, was not as lucky. An ONS fellow, he went on to become a well-known artist in the Bay Area hip-hop scene. He was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2013, two years after Ervin died.
Though the drive-bys and shootings have continued, the homicide rate in Richmond has dropped significantly since the fellowship program began in 2010. Shootings took the lives of 21 people in 2010, 26 in 2011, 18 in 2012, 16 murders in 2013 and 11 in 2014, a significant drop from the 47 murders in 2009. “We have evidence here, now, in Richmond, that says that people have changed,” Boggan says.
But how much of that success can be attributed to Boggan and his staff? Evaluating outreach programs like ONS is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process, one that ONS is in the midst of now. Evaluation of the fellowship program, funded by a California foundation, will take three years to complete. Evaluators in Richmond will face challenges teasing out the effects of ONS from other factors, such as increased gentrification and changes in policing tactics in Richmond, including a shift in 2006 to more community-oriented policing.
Boggan points to the successes of the young men who stayed with the fellowship until the end as a measure of what ONS has accomplished so far. Most important, almost all the fellows are still alive (65 of 68), and most have stopped shooting other young men (11 have been arrested for gun violence since 2010).
Richmond is facing a $20 million budget deficit, which will be reduced in part by cutting $580,000 from the ONS budget. Boggan recently lost three of his staff as a result of the cuts, and the agency now operates with only four outreach workers.
Despite the city’s financial problems, Boggan expects that ONS will continue to evolve. The agency’s next step is to reach out to a much younger group of fellows. ONS plans to take a preventive approach with the next fellowship and pull young people into services and mentoring before they pick up a gun.
Boggan says he dreams of the day when ONS might declare its mission accomplished and close its doors for good. “We believe we can interrupt and cure this disease of violence.”
Third in a series of three stories about violence as a public health crisis.
The John Jay/Tow Foundation Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship helped to support this series.