To some, it’s one of the most dangerous spots in America. Others know it as “a city that pays criminals to behave.” To DeVone Boggan, Richmond, Calif., on the east side of the San Francisco Bay Area, is where a group of people are trying to build safer neighborhoods after three decades of living in what’s essentially a war zone.
Boggan is the director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). It’s a bureaucratic title that belies his public-private agency’s innovative work on gun violence prevention and youth outreach. Founded in 2007, when Richmond’s murder rate was nine times the national average, ONS has since helped the rate plummet to its lowest levels in four decades: 11 deaths per 100,000. (Nearby in Oakland, the 2013 rate was 23 per 100,000; in Detroit, 47.) Even more impressive is the fact that the decline in violence is happening faster in Richmond than anywhere else in the country.
How did Boggan do it? His agency contacts a select group of young men that are most likely to be involved in shootings — the ones who’ve brushed off help and stubbornly refused to change. With directed help, ONS gives the boys a profitable alternative to crime, starting with a monthly paycheck up to $1,000 for staying out of trouble.
“I found myself in a room with a myriad of law enforcement agencies and what I continued to hear was that they believed that 28 people were responsible for 70 percent of the gunfire in our city in the year 2009, and I said these 28 people are all were gonna focus on,” Boggan explains. “Before we could hit the ground running, we lost three of those young men to gun violence, so we invited the 25 living to City hall and 21 of them dared to show up. That tells you they’re hungry for something real.”
If you want to “reduce firearm-related homicides,” Boggan says, you can’t simply flood the streets with police, install surveillance cameras or scare people into being good. “You’ve got to understand the nature of [violence] and you’ve got to understand the drivers of it,” he explains. Being a young man in poor circumstances is a situation that Boggan recognizes well. Growing up in Michigan, he was busted for selling drugs.
“The context that has led me to where I’ve landed professionally has a lot to do with having access to positive adult healthy men. My parents divorced when I was nine years old. That meant my father was out of a home,” Boggan says. “It was during that period that my first mentor showed up at a time when I really needed some adult guidance. Having access to adult male figures is vital. In Richmond, it’s vital to survive.”
Almost always seen in a fedora, Boggan picked a team of Neighborhood Change Agents who could make inroads with potential murders. Boggan’s joked before, “It’s the only agency where you’re required to have a criminal background check to be an employee,” but he says that a more important qualification is hiring “people who cared about these young men.”
“Our job is to be on the streets talking to folks, interaction, building relationships,” says Joe McCoy, a Neighborhood Change Agent. “The car is our office; the street corner is our conference room.”
The reach of ONS expanded in 2009 with the creation of the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. It identified at-risk individuals, ages 13 to 25, and incentivizes them to turn their lives around by paying stipends ranging from $300 to $1,000. Though the reduction in murders speaks to the efficacy of the program, it’s not without controversy.
“I think the biggest question that comes up is, Why would we spend these kinds of resources on people who should be in jail?” Boggan says. “Our philosophy and approach is were not going to arrest our way out of gun violence. The way were going to get ourselves removed from gun violence is developing and shaping these young men in a different way. We see these young men as vital and viable partners and we have to understand the power that these young men bring to the table,” he adds. “Gun violence isn’t being reduced because of the police alone. The primary reason is because these young men are making better decisions.”