It's been called one of the most dangerous cities in America and the murder capital of California. Across the bay from San Francisco, Richmond, Calif., has been engaged in what a forthcoming documentary calls "a confused war" — an ongoing, seemingly endless battle between rival communities in the north, south, and central areas of the city. With a crime rate of 55 per 1,000 residents — one of the highest of any community nationwide — the chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in Richmond is 1 in 101. In this city of just over 100,000 residents, an average of 35 people were murdered each year between 1986 to 2005. Forty-seven people were killed there in 2007 — 10 times the national average.
With statistics as grim as these, many communities might throw up their hands in despair. But Devone Boggan, founding director of the city's Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), had a different idea. A victim of gun violence himself, Boggan believed the problem was not so much a problem of poor policing, but a lack of engagement in the communities directly touched by violence.
So, in October 2007, the ONS team began visiting every murder scene in Richmond and meeting with victims and their families. Modeled on "Operation Ceasefire" violence intervention programs in Boston and Chicago, ONS offered grief counselors, assistance with funeral costs, and a consistent presence in the community with a consistent message: Don't retaliate and perpetuate the cycle of violence. By 2008, ONS began to see the fruits of its labor. Homicides remained unacceptably high but were reduced significantly, inroads were made in communities long plagued by violence, and confidence that changes were afoot began to build. But a year later, when 47 people were again killed by firearms in the city, Boggan and his team knew they'd have to go back to the drawing board.
Most neighborhood safety programs target individuals downstream from acts of violence, including victims and their families. But when ONS reviewed the homicides in Richmond, one thing became clear: About 15 young men were responsible for nearly all of them, but police couldn't prove it. So rather than working only with youth who were at-risk to become violent, ONS chose a more innovative strategy — to confront the young men who were perpetrating the violence and give them a chance for a better life.
This new approach led to the creation of the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship ("the Fellowship") in 2010. Through intense mentoring, life coaching, and a positive accountability system supported by a private-public partnership with the City of Richmond, the Fellowship connects the young men who instigate gun violence with real alternatives, including opportunities to attend college and participate in job training programs, as well as a chance to learn from older men who themselves were once involved in a life of violence and ultimately chose a different path.
Indeed, since its launch in 2010, the Fellowship has produced extraordinary results. Homicides in Richmond have declined by 35%. Of the 43 Fellows ONS has served, 42 are still alive, 39 have no related gun hospitalizations, 36 have no new gun charges, and 33 have no new gun violence-related arrests. As one of the Fellowship's outreach workers, Sam Vaughn, explained to me: "The basic concept [of the Fellowship] is to love [the Fellows] and treat them as you would want to be treated in their situation using their logic. You do that for them and they will appreciate you and allow you to help guide their lives."
I wanted to learn more about how the program works, how it's changed lives, and whether its participants could offer any insight on the national policy debate on gun violence, so I interviewed three Fellows currently enrolled in the program: James Barker, (23), Lavonta Crummie (23), and Rasheed Shepherd (22). James, Lavonta, and Rasheed each spoke candidly with me about the dangers of growing up in Richmond; what it's like being surrounded by violence as a child; and how the ONS Fellowship showed them a world of opportunity they could have never imagined — or, in James' words, how to become "a citizen instead of a statistic."
James Barker, 23
Jared Milrad (JM): Can you tell us a bit about growing up in Richmond?
James Barker: (JB) Growing up in Richmond there was a lot of violence and that’s the only outcome you had. That’s all you had to look up to ... I was always in and out of jail for little things. Then [ONS staffers] told me: “It’s yourself putting you in there. If you change yourself, [things will change for you]." Now I’m a working man, I’ve got a son who lives with me. Life’s just great.
JM: Were you able to stay in school?
JB: No, I dropped out in the ninth grade. Going to school was like going to see an enemy or something [because of the rival gangs in other parts of the city]. I got out of school because I didn’t want to die.
JM: When was the first time you were shot?
JB: I was 18 years old. A van pulled up on me and shot me. They just pulled up spraying [bullets]. They shot like 80 times at everyone out there.
It was an ongoing war in the city. A really confused war. One block away could be the enemy zone and we couldn’t go there.
JM: When was the first time you met anyone from ONS?
JB: I was fresh out of jail. A few of my friends were in the program and they were getting a stipend. I needed the money. I was 20 or 21. They won't pay me, though, until they saw what I could do — like go to college, get a GED, prove [that I was capable of changing my life]. They didn’t see me for a year, but then they saw me at my job. And they were proud, like a father figure. [They’d] ask, “How you been?” I distanced myself from my friends. I changed everything about the way I lived. I started being a citizen instead of a statistic.
JM: How has the program changed what's possible for you?
JB: [Before I got involved in the program] I thought I could be dead or in jail. But now, in five years I want to be getting out of college. I want to study a lot of things. Not sure yet [what I want to study], but I want to go to college.
JM: Do you think this program could be replicated to reduce gun violence in other cities?
JB: Yes, it can be a solution because gang members in other cities would see [that we’ve been through the same thing]. When they see one person going to college, [it can have a ripple effect] on the rest of the gang and the community.
Lavonta Crummie, 23
JM: What was it like growing up in Richmond?
Lavonta Crummie (LC): Growing in Richmond was different — it was a confused war. It was always segregated from North, South, and Central [Richmond] — meaning the people you were around were all from the same neighborhood. It’s impossible for a North Richmond guy to ever be in the same room with a South Richmond guy. We don’t even have to have a personal problem, it’s just [an ongoing] feud. It was a war that was created before I was even born. I have family members — cousins, uncles — that have been hurt or affected by violence. So the way we grieved and the way we acted out felt civilized.
JM: When was the first time you were exposed to violence? What happened?
LC: I was 9 years old. I rode a bike up the street and saw a drive-by shooting [when] I was going to meet up with another friend. A car pulled up on me. They saw I was a kid and kept going, and then it pulled up on another gentlemen sitting in a car — it was open, rapid gunfire. Even as my first time seeing it, it’s sad to say I wasn’t shocked or jumpy about it, because it’s been going on so long. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard stories and details [about gun violence].
JM: How has violence personally affected you?
LC: I’ve been stabbed in my face. I was a victim of a robbery when I was 20-years-old. I had 21 stitches in my face, and this happened in my own neighborhood. The place where I grew up and was supposed to feel safest.
JM: Were you able to stay in school?
JM: Have you had friends that have been personally affected by gun violence?
LC: Yeah. I have a best friend who was gunned down in Richmond. He died [when he was] 21 years old.
JM: How did you hear about ONS?
LC: I knew Sam [Vaughn, ONS outreach worker] from growing up, but I heard about the program through word of mouth. They hit the streets really. The first time I heard about the program [was when I saw ONS workers driving] an old police vehicle. I saw 6 or 7 individuals that I knew at the vehicle, and it shocked me — like, “What is going on?” [My friends] were at the car in the window talking to [the ONS workers], so I had to see what it was about.
It’s really a program to help yourself. We are our own men as well as intelligent. [By participating in the Fellowship,] we might be seen [by some in our community] as sell outs or traitors as well as leaders. But ONS wanted to hit where the violence starts, so they didn’t just go after the Average Joe. I think that was a good idea.
JM: How has the program changed your life?
LC: It’s done a lot. It brought my confidence up to know that there is more out there than Richmond. Gang violence kicks up too much dust in Richmond given that it’s such a small city. It’s uncivilized to see [so many murders happening in Richmond].
The program has changed the inner person I am and has groomed me to be a better individual. They give you the opportunity to do what you want to do. They offer jobs as well as internships. They just show that there’s more out there.
JM: Do you want to go to college?
LC: Yes. I’m taking classes now at a community college — I’m going for business management. I might even start a program like this one — something to do with youth empowerment for young black individuals. I could say that there’s better things out there. I could make a difference.
Rasheed Shepherd, 22
JM: Could you tell us a bit about growing up in Richmond?
Rasheed Shepherd (RS): Growing up in Richmond was fun as a kid, because it was more of a community thing. Everyone looked out for each other. There was love and respect. [As a kid] for the most part it was smooth sailing.
JM: Who raised you?
RS: I had both of parents until I was about 7 or 8 years old, but from there it was mostly my mother. My mom had me when she was 18 [years old].
JM: When did you first encounter violence?
RS: I grew up in a neighborhood full of violence. so I grew up around that type of lifestyle as far as seeing flashy cars and clothes. I liked that type of lifestyle that’s why I went into the street.
JM: When did you first get out into the street?
RS: Middle school, around 7th grade. I was able to walk past and really mingle and hang out in the streets because I had to walk and catch the bus to school. Things started to get crazy for Richmond. Now you’re involved because you’re guilty by association.
JM: When was the first time you saw an act of violence?
RS: I can’t even remember the first time. In elementary school, around 4th or 5th grade, we had a birthday party in my front yard for a younger cousins, and somebody had a problem with the area I was living in, so they came and did a drive-by shooting down the street from my house in front of the kids.
JM: Did any of your friends get shot or killed?
RS: I’ve lost a lot of friends. More than two hands could count. Family and friends.
JM: Were you able to stay in school?
RS: My mom ended up moving out of Richmond when I was 13 or 14. But my life was in Richmond. That’s all I knew, so I went back to my dad and my grandma. That’s what I was more comfortable around. I used to act like I was going to school and would go straight back to the neighborhood. When this program kicked off, it came in mind, “You’ve got a safe haven. You need to take advantage of it.”
JM: How old were you when you first heard about the program?
RS: I was 19. They basically came and got us off the block. I was on the block chilling with a couple friends of mind and a black Impala pulled up. We wondered if it was the police or someone trying to get us. They pulled up and said they wanted to talk to us about a program [that would] to help us help ourselves.
At the first meeting we had at the City Hall, I asked if [the ONS workers] were police. I’d never dealt with people in suits. The only time [in Richmond you deal with people in suits] is with church people, the Feds, or the coroner coming to tell you somebody died. When I first put on a suit, my mom cried. She said she didn't expect to see me in a suit until I was in a casket.
JM: How has the program changed your life?
RS: I’ve been able to go places I’d never thought I’d go – Dubai, South Africa. They told me, “If you dedicate yourself to this program, we’ll put the money behind you to do what you want to do.” I did my training to become a merchant seaman. I wanted to be a security guard too, so they paid for me to become a security guard and finish up my GED.
[This program] made you want to change. It’s like getting into an alley – you see it’s more dark than light. It felt like at the end of this alley was death or jail. And for me it was more likely to be death.
JM: How can we reduce gun violence?
RS: You see, guns will always be around. It’s kind of like video games. Once people have them, they’re hard to take away. I think education about what a gun is for [is more important] than taking guns away from people. I never got education [about guns] growing up. Folks need to be told that guns are to protect and serve your family in your household. Not to go to war with. So the right education and the right laws would be the best way to go.