A few years ago, the city of Richmond, California, embarked on a radical new approach to gun violence. Instead of simply arresting, prosecuting, and jailing its shooters, it started helping them. It formed a fellowship program, introduced intensive mentoring, and asked these "high-risk individuals" to agree to wide-ranging life-goals.
The strategy appears to be working. Since 2007—the year it launched its Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS)—there's been a 76% reduction in firearm-related homicides and a 66% reduction in firearm-related assaults. Helping young men break a cycle of hopelessness and nihilism gets results, officials say.
"We're trying to get them to dream, to hope, to go from a place of 'I don't give a fuck' to a place where 'Maybe I do,'" says DeVone Boggan, director of the ONS. "Because the moment you start to give a damn, you start to make decisions that are healthier about how you handle the conflicts you're negotiating every day."
The office's fellowship program is controversial, because as well as helping with education, career development, anger management, parenting, medical health, spirituality, and so on, there's also a financial element. Each fellow who makes it past the first six months gets $1,000-a-month for the next nine months. The fellows, in a sense, are being paid not to shoot each other.
The program springs from a statistical observation: A large amount of gun violence in cities is typically perpetrated by a relatively small number of people. In Richmond's case, the police said just 28 people committed 70% of gun-related assaults or homicides in 2009. (The city has a population of about 108,000 and saw 45 firearm-related homicides and 186 firearm-related assaults that year.)
ONS, which exists outside conventional law enforcement, initially focused on sending out change agents or "violence interrupters" to community. But, after early success, it saw an uptick in violence in 2009. That's when Boggan started focusing on the core group, all of whom were African American and aged 16-28 years old. He invited 25 individuals—three had died while Boggan was conceiving his plan—and 21 turned up.
"We started a conversation about what they were doing with their life, and we asked them for their help to reduce gun violence in a significant way," Boggan says.
The 18-24 month fellowship—which has now been offered to three complete cohorts—consists of seven elements. First, the individuals are visited multiple times a day by outreach workers. Second, the fellows set out a multi-factor "life map" including career and health goals. Third, they're connected with social services and helped through application processes. Fourth, they're given the stipend. Fifth, they're able to take trips around California and further afield (New York, South Africa, and Dubai have been destinations so far). Sixth, they're connected with a "college of elders"—retired or semi-retired role models in the community. And seventh, they're set up with internships based on their interests and talents.
"We never ask them to put their guns down," Boggan says. "We trust that these seven elements, which are grounded in evidence-based practices, will bring them round in their own time." (By evidence-based, he means research into the impact of mentoring and other long-tried approaches.)
All this doesn't come cheap. The city is paying $980,000 this year for ONS, with another $1 million to $1.5 million coming from private philanthropy for the actual fellowship itself. The main funders are the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente. Boggan insists that the money is well spent. The cost of gun-related health care and criminal justice system expenses is a lot higher, he says.
Several other cities, including Washington D.C., San Jose, Oakland, and Toledo, Ohio, are now adopting Richmond's model, or aspects of it. Gary, Indiana, and Baltimore are also interested.
In most cases, private funding is necessary to get the projects off the ground. "We're trying to get this funded by public dollars, period. But that's a big challenge, particularly when it's being pushed as 'paying criminals not to shoot' or 'paying shooters not to kill,'" Boggan says.
Rewarding criminality may be controversial, of course. But Boggan believes that law enforcement, on its own, can't stop gun violence, or at least not sufficiently. "As a country, we have to have viable, non-law enforcement, community approaches to addressing this epidemic," he says. "Many of our urban cities have been navigating this historically for long periods of time. We have to be realistic about how we're failing when we only have one single approach to this issue."