How one city has reduced gun deaths

An innovative program tackling gun violence in Richmond, Calif. is credited with a substantial reduction in firearm-related homicides in the city northeast of San Francisco.

DeVone Boggan launched the Office of Neighborhood Safety in late October 2007 in the city of roughly 100,000 people.

“The office is a non-law enforcement government entity with one single focus — and that is to reduce violent assaults and associated deaths,” Boggan said during a recent interview.

The program reaches out to active firearm offenders in the community and offers them Operation Peacemaker Fellowships. Fellows are matched with case managers who help them develop “life maps,” get opportunities to travel around the state and country and are offered paid internships, Boggan said.

Potential fellows are identified through street outreach work, tips from the community and from past fellows. Boggan said nearly everyone who is offered a fellowship and a pathway out of violence accepts. The office typically serves about 40 fellows every 18 months.

“Most of them don’t want to live this way. They’re born into this sh**,” Boggan said. “No one has presented a real, responsive, robust, credible, legitimate alternative to what they are experiencing.”

The City of Richmond covers about $980,000 of the program’s annual operating expenses and another $1 million to $1.5 million in private fundraising makes up the rest of the budget, Boggan said.

In 2007, the city had 45 homicides involving firearms — making it one of the most dangerous cities in the country with a homicide rate of 45.9 per 100,000 residents, according to a report on the program by the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Young black men — as in other major American cities — have disproportionately been victims of gun violence in Richmond. For homicides between 2005 and 2012 in the city, 73 percent were African American, 88 percent were male and 36 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

By 2014, the homicide count dropped to 11, the lowest level in the city since 1991, according to the Contra Costa Times. In 2015, however, homicides spiked to 21.

Still, Boggan said the work of the Office of Neighborhood Safety has had a tremendous impact.

“We went from the sixth most dangerous city in the country based on the FBI ratings to the 61st most dangerous city in the country,” he said.

He said 79 percent of the program’s fellows give up gun violence and don’t end up involved in another gun crime.

Overall, the Office of Neighborhood Safety has provided gang prevention services to more than 1,600 young people.

Outreach workers check-in with fellows several times throughout the day to see how they are doing and to get progress reports.

Case workers are assigned to each fellow to help them create their life map, which outlines goals related to personal safety, transportation, employment, education, mental health and anger management, among other things.

“We literally help them negotiate their life map and achieve goals on a daily basis,” Boggan said.

After six months as fellows, they become eligible for $1,000 monthly stipends for the remainder of their time with the program.

They also get the chance to travel around California to meet with business and community leaders.

When they go on trips out of the state, fellows travel with people in rival gangs or someone they have had a dispute with in the past.

“When they travel out of state or out of the country, they are traveling with people they are trying to kill — that is provocative,” Boggan said.

Since it launched, the Office for Neighborhood Safety has taken 35 excursions with fellows, including trips to South Africa, Mexico City and Dubai.

The trips are “intense as hell,” Boggan said, but often transformative.

“They begin to see the humanity in one another,” he said. “A common testimony from our fellow is, ‘I actually like this dude more than the guys I used to go out shooting at him with.’”

Fellows are also offered subsidized internships that typically last nine to 12 months and the opportunity to network with a group of retired men of color who offer mentoring and guidance called the Elders Circle.

Other cities have taken notice of Richmond’s model for approaching gun violence. Neighboring Oakland is launching a similar program this year and Boggan has also worked with officials in Washington, D.C., to launch fellowships.

Boggan said he hears from new cities every week interested in learning more about the Office for Neighborhood Safety.

He said it’s important for city leaders to come to grips with the realities of gun violence and let the young men who have been victims and perpetrators of the violence help steer a path toward peace.

“We got to engage these young men who are most responsible or closest to this violence directly, and it has to be around authentic relationships and partnerships,” he said. “We need to embrace these young men as partners around solving a very critical problem in our cities.”