A controversial approach to gun-violence prevention in the city of Richmond appears to be working, suggests a study released Monday by the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. One yardstick used to determine the program’s success: Nearly all of its participants are still alive.
“Most social service programs do not count outcomes such as mortality or injury,” the NCCD report acknowledges, but “using these measures is paramount for an effort designed to reduce lethal violence.”
Launched as a public-private partnership in 2007 after years of unsuccessful attempts to curb violent crime, Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety specifically targets youth identified by police data and other sources as the most likely to be involved in gun violence.
The ONS has received praise and criticism for its intensive 18-month training and mentoring program, known as the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. As part of that effort, participants — predominantly African-American youth ages 14 to 25 — become eligible to earn $1,000-per-month stipends after six months.
“Our goal is to get them to stop shooting,” ONS Director DeVone Boggan explained in a Tuesday interview on KQED’s Forum. But he said critics who latch onto the notion that ONS is paying people not to kill are missing the bigger picture. “We’re not simply calling the city’s most lethal, active firearm offenders … and saying, ‘Please stop shooting, and if you do we’ll give you $1,000 a month.’ That’s not what we’re doing.”
Instead, Boggan described the fellowship as a way to engage disenfranchised youth who are notoriously difficult to reach, with the ambitious goal of completely altering the courses of their lives to halt their involvement in street violence. Participating fellows must check in daily with ONS staff, create a “life map” to determine their personal education and career goals, and fully commit to giving up the use of firearms in order to graduate.
They’re even given opportunities to travel, in some cases internationally. Going through airport security can be a relief to ONS fellows, Boggan pointed out, since they can rest easy knowing nobody aboard the flight is armed, unlike in their everyday realities.
“Our fellowship focuses only on those individuals that are considered to be the most lethal active firearm offenders … and those who may be coming home from some incarceration, that we feel may provide some threat to the community,” Boggan explained.
The ONS operates independently from law enforcement, and often relies on information provided by street outreach workers, who can be more knowledgeable than police, to supplement police data.
What separates ONS from other efforts to address gun violence “is the daily, high dosage of authentic relationships,” Boggan said on Forum. “We are hunting these young men down — forgive the terminology of hunting, but it’s their terminology — we are hunting them down every day, typically like they hunt their enemies down, and we are giving them a great deal of positive attention, affording them a healthier diet, and more healthy information, to negotiate conflict. They typically reference this fellowship as a family to them,” he added.
Richmond’s per-capita homicide rate reached an all-time low in 2013, and the number of firearm assaults has trended downward since 2010. While the NCCD evaluation credits ONS as a contributing factor in this shift, it noted that “ONS strategies are having an impact, but it is impossible to disentangle the ONS approach from other concurrent citywide violence reduction interventions.”
At the same time, violence started to creep back up more recently.
As for ONS’ role in the decline, “It is a promising approach,” NCCD Director of Justice Strategies Angie Wolf, who conducted the study, said on Forum. “Providing this long-term intervention plan gives the young person both the opportunity to make mistakes and test boundaries … and it gives them time to implement changes in thinking and changes in behaviors in a variety of settings. These young people don’t just need to learn how to not pick up guns -– there’s a whole host of activities, things like getting a driver’s license, that just feel like an overwhelming task that they’d never be able to accomplish.”
According to the NCCD report, homicide is the second-leading cause of death in California for all youth ages 10 to 24, with the large majority of homicides committed with firearms. And, citing a study from the Violence Policy Center, the NCCD evaluation noted that for African-American youth in the same age range, homicide is the leading cause of death.
Four out of 68 Operation Peacemaker fellows have died since the program was launched, according to the NCCD evaluation, and the program is credited with helping the vast majority avoid fatal conflicts.
“I have seen I could do better,” said an unnamed fellow quoted in the NCCD report. “I see people trying to help me. I have realized that life is bigger than North Richmond and street life. I don’t have to limit myself.”