Gun violence is a way of life in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country. It’s becoming so common that sometimes these shootings don’t even make the evening news anymore.
Here at CBS4 News, we wanted to dig deeper. CBS4 Anchor Rudabeh Shahbazi traveled to what was once one of the most dangerous cities in America, Richmond, California; which is just outside of San Francisco, to learn about Operation Peacemaker. It’s a program focused on the community’s most lethal young men. The plan is to mentor them, train them and pay them — NOT to shoot.
Like so many children who came of age in this city, Sam Vaughn and James Houston grew up without real role models. Both looked to their peers, getting into the street life early on, and ending up locked up in San Quentin.
“I was carrying guns, selling drugs, I eventually took a man’s life,” said Houston, who grew up watching his father abuse his mother.
“You had to make sure didn’t nobody hurt you, you had to make sure didn’t nobody take what you had,” said Vaughn, who was sentenced to more than 11 years for attempted murder. “So you carried guns, you made threats when you felt disrespected, you had to escalate things.”
After serving their time and back in their community, their criminal histories made them the perfect candidates for a radical new city program. It’s mission, to save dangerous young men from a life of crime.
It started with DeVone Boggan, policymaker and community activist, in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a newly formed city department tasked with eradicating gun violence.
“The story of gun violence here in Richmond, and across this country, is a story of young men who have very limited choices, and they’re doing terrible things to one another,” said Boggan. “They’re typically left isolated, idle, enraged, full of direct and vicarious untreated trauma.”
Boggan surmised that those closest to the problem, would be closest to the solution.
“Why not directly and specifically engage the young men who are creating the risk for every other person in their neighborhoods, particularly when it’s just a handful of young men,” said Boggan.
Boggan formed his staff of so-called Neighborhood Change Agents, formerly incarcerated men like Vaughn and Houston, responsible for street outreach. The number one requirement for this job: a criminal history of gun violence.
Boggan made a list, based on his conversations with law enforcement, as well as his own sources on the streets– a register of just 28 men believed to be responsible for 70 percent of the city’s shootings, men Boggan said were likely to kill or be killed within the year. They were invited to City Hall, and almost all of them showed up, after Neighborhood Change Agents hit the streets to recruit them. The shooters were primarily African-American and Hispanic men between the ages of 16 and 25, violent offenders known to police, but still out on the streets.
“Most gun crimes are not cleared or closed in urban America, because we don’t have the evidence or the witnesses available to provide a prosecutable case,” said Boggan.
Boggan set out to transform these lethal young men with a fellowship called “Operation Peacemaker,” through mentoring, helping them set goals, providing them travel opportunities outside of Richmond and, most controversially, with financial rewards— up to $1,000 a month not to shoot.
“Do they deserve this kind of opportunity,” asked Boggan. “That’s a debatable question, and I totally respect the side that would say, absolutely not. They may not deserve it, but they need it, more than any other kid in the community. And those other kids in the community, need for him to get it, if they’re going to have a legitimate shot of reaching their full potential and living without fear.”
Before Operation Peacemaker could even get off the ground, three of the men on the list were murdered.
“If you look at most of the communities where the violence is going on, look what’s lacking in those communities— opportunities,” said Houston. “So we’re not only giving these young people these stipends, but we’re giving them the opportunity to get them to a place where, ‘I can relax, and I can focus on doing something better with my life. I can actually see a future.’”
The strategy wasn’t just about money. Operation Peacemaker focused on changing the mindset of using firearms to solve conflict through life skills training and therapy. Neighborhood Change Agents like Vaughn and Houston showed the fellows alternatives to a life of crime, guiding them through social services and helping them find internships and jobs.
“These are our people who we know and trust from being within our community, from being into the world that we’re in, so they’re speaking from going through it,” said LaVon Carter, who went through the ONS fellowship in 2014 when he was fresh out of prison for pimping and pandering, and now serves as an ambassador for the program.
“If you’ve never lived I the ghetto, you can’t come here and tell us what’s going on, if you’ve never experienced it, so it’s better for us to hear it and see it happening from people who we know and trust in our community, seeing them make a change with their lives.”
Carter, who at the time couldn’t remember a world without gun violence, said the Neighborhood Change Agents showed him life without firearms was possible.
“I’ve seen other successful black men that are not drug dealers and pimps, and that’s what changed my outlook on it,” said Carter. “So now I’m looking at it, like, it’s happening. It is happening. There is people like that.”
The stipends come from up to $1.5 million dollars a year in donations from private foundations, individuals and corporations, to pay fellows like Carter to work for peace instead of violence. The fellowship also pairs rival gang members on field trips, to get them out of their neighborhoods and explore the outside world together, free of the street rules that make them enemies. The operational costs of the program are funded by taxpayers.
When asked if those funds would better serve other young people in Richmond who are already positively contributing to society, Boggan said the money benefits them as well.
“We believe that only when you’re able to have a positive, heathy and engaging experience with these young men, do those other resources directed at those young people further upstream, have a real opportunity to reach their maximum potential,” he said. “It’s hard to go to a mentoring program, per se, at the community center, if your parents are afraid to let you walk down the street to that community center, because this young man has absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing coming at him, other than law enforcement resources.”
For many in the law enforcement community, the idea of diverting funds to known violent offenders, was hard to swallow at first.
“The stipend was probably one of the most offensive things to law enforcement, because it was basically incentivizing: have the tendency to be a killer, but just not right now,” said Capt. Mark Gagan, a 23-year veteran of the Richmond Police Department.
Gagan has witnessed some of the most brutal crime scenes in Richmond. He was there in 2007, when the homicide rate reached a boiling point, 47 homicides, in a city of just over 100,000 people. City leaders proposed asking the governor of California to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard.
“A group of City Council members really felt that more needed to be done, and we in law enforcement were somewhat offended that they didn’t feel like we needed more resources; that they needed to go in a different direction and create the Office of Neighborhood Safety,” said Gagan. “I think at the time, the officers felt that that closeness was empowering to the gang members, and there was a real resistance to giving them any credit to diverting or stopping shootings, and they even began to say, ‘Hey, we saw ONS workers hanging out on this corner with these gang members, and what’s the deal? Aren’t they city employees?’”
Fanning the criticism, in 2011, seven ONS fellows from rival territories got in a fist fight while picking up their stipend checks, leaving a bloody mess at City Hall. Police say ONS workers refused to cooperate with police in the investigation that followed. That same week, a female Neighborhood Change Agent was caught in a sex act with a known gang member in her city-issued vehicle.
Despite the controversy surrounding the ONS and its staff, Gagan, who has served as a social worker and SWAT commander, appreciated the need for a different approach. He says the results were hard to ignore. By 2014, the number of homicides had dropped to 11, a dramatic downturn from the nearly four dozen killings the year ONS got off the ground less than a decade prior.
“I really do feel that they have a big impact on reducing gun violence and retaliatory shootings when they are likely to happen,” said Gagan.
Though there’s no real way to quantify the program’s success—other factors, like a decrease in overall crime, better policing and a better economic climate may have all played a role—Gagan says the Neighborhood Change Agents have been able to reach the city’s most lethal shooters in a way law enforcement never could.
“If you really look at the effectiveness of most of the criminal justice system interventions, you would realize that being arrested, and even being incarcerated, is not a deterrent,” said Gagan. “And if you can actually get somebody to focus on a goal, that’s capable of extreme violence… focus on trying to learn about a job or go to a job interview, then that’s a huge success.”
Carter scoffs at the idea that the stipend rewards criminal behavior.
“I wouldn’t say it’s rewarding them,” he said. “It’s called lending a helping hand. Why wouldn’t you want to share information that you’ve got with people who don’t have access to the information?”
Boggan explains it another way; he says, if you don’t understand the history, environment and conditions of the inner city, there is no hope for peace. He even compares the cycle of violence to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, saying many of the shooters in question were exposed to violence, even while in the womb.
“They come into this world, and throughout their growth and development, bullets are flying,” he said. “Bullets are hitting family members. Bullets are hitting friends. Bullets are passing by them. Bullets hit them and injure them. They grow up believing that the other side is the enemy, and my responsibility—a very rational thought— my responsibility is to be loyal to my community, but also to protect my community from danger, from the enemy. Yes, that’s the choice that they’ve made. But that’s all they’ve really had access to.”
Boggan adds that their exposure to the street life makes them valuable assets in the fight against gun violence.
“We’ve got to have a sense of empathy towards these young men, but also that very unique experience, to really appreciate the reality that they have to negotiate every day.”
Gagan, once a skeptic, is now one of ONS’ biggest allies. For him, these men have demonstrated the power of thinking outside the box.
“I think law enforcement is the one that needs to evolve,” he said. “Many people have information that they don’t offer to us, because they think that our police department is not really here to serve them or understand their needs. And it’s a challenge I don’t think just in Richmond, but in most communities that are blighted and struggle with violence, that there is a suspicion and a frustration that exists. Some of it is because of problem policing, but others are just that both sides have biases that need to be broken down.”
Gagan acknowledges that that ONS workers and law enforcement officers will never be able to say they are partners, in terms of working together or sharing information, but says he can see the impact they have in tense, life-or-death situations; at murder scenes, for example.
“We’re on one side of the tape doing our investigation, and they’re on the other side with the victim’s family, witnesses, and even people capable of committing a retaliatory shooting, and I know they are preaching nonviolence, be calm, take a breath,” said Gagan. “It’s referred to sometimes as ‘cause a moment of pause.’ And when you can do that in a city that has retaliatory shootings, sometimes within 15 or 20 minutes after a killing, we all as a community, need that to happen.”
For young men like Carter, who had never had a role model, aspirations were now within reach, and a life free of gunfire seemed to be a viable possibility. Carter says he is extremely proud of the sharp homicide drop.
“It shows that we are learning a different way, besides killing each other to work out our differences,” he said.
Neighborhood Change Agents Vaughn and Houston, are back on the streets, this time as mentors, trying to prevent other young men from making decisions that will lead to a life of incarceration, or worse.
“I went to prison for taking a man’s life, and every day I want to honor him,” said Houston. “So with that, as well as waking up each day and realizing you have a purpose, it’s meant the world to me.”
“For the most part, everybody around me is following those bread crumbs, right to their own destruction,” said Vaughn. “So I don’t want to do that, and to help a young person realize: I have to pave my own way on the unbeaten path. I got to find it, and then, let me leave some bread crumbs for somebody else to follow. And you change a society by changing a culture. You change the value systems, and that changes everything else that goes on around them, because now folks can see something good, they can see something wholesome.”
While Operation Peacemaker has been criticized for directing money at the wrong people, Boggan says the stipends actually save taxpayer dollars.
“We’re definitely saving taxpayer money,” he said. “When you consider that the cost of a fellow— per year cost— is between $20,000-$24,000—and that’s including staff time assigned to that fellow, up against a $400,000 cost every single time a bullet pierces the human body in this city.”
Further, Boggan says not only do the fellows benefit from the program, but the entire community is safer and healthier.
“I would also add that this prestigious opportunity that were providing to young men, isn’t for free,” said Boggan. “These young men bring with them an experience, a very unique experience, information, technology, thinking, intelligence, about what’s required to end gun violence in this particular city.”
Could other cities in America replicate such a strategy? Would they want to?
Boggan says Chicago and New Orleans are strongly considering it, and that several other California cities are researching it as well. In Washington, D.C., the City Council voted to replicate the model, but the mayor vetoed it.
In South Florida, various programs within Miami-Dade County use a similar intervention approach to go after at-risk youth.
“If they hit the door, and they’re under the age of 12, you know you’ve got to do something,” said Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Director Morris Copeland. “You’ve got to do something different, you’ve got to be innovative, you’ve got to be creative.”
Copeland and his team focus on juveniles who enter the system for lesser crimes, and go after the root causes of their behavior, with the goal of preventing them from ever picking up a firearm.
“If you can stop it at that point, then you have a much better success rate, in terms of dealing with this situation down the road, because you got them young enough, where you can make a very, very big impact,” said Copeland.
Rather than focusing on incarceration, Copeland’s strategy is to evaluate every child or teenager who goes through the system on an individual basis, so that services can be tailored to meet his or her needs.
“I’ll give you the perfect example,” he said. “We had three children come in one day, all charged with shoplifting, and when we did our assessments, we found out that one was being sexually abused at home, the other was using drugs, and the other was just hanging out with the other two. If we would have treated all those children the same, the results would have been negligible.”
Copeland says it is unrealistic to expect most of the children in the juvenile justice system to excel in sports, get a certain GPA, or meet other requirements necessary for many youth programs.
“These children, the majority of times, are pushed aside,” said Copeland. “We can’t fit them into our process, because they’re not going to make it. So what we have to do, is change the way we think, and change the way the community thinks about these young people, because they really want to be connected to something. So that’s why they connect themselves to gang involvement, because those guys are going to give them unconditional love.”
Copeland says one of the County’s most successful gang intervention programs involves taking a team door to door in high crime areas, offering social services to families and connecting kids and teens with mentors, sometimes even taking ex-cons along with them.
“We’ve been able to identify situations before they occur, due to those relationships that we’ve established with those folk out there,” said Copeland, adding that community members will often identify neighbors who are causing problems or carrying guns.
“Then we can take the information and share it, or we can work with those young men, to try to keep them from going in that direction, instead of being extremely punitive,” said Copeland.
Copeland says that while there is an emphasis on finding support, mentors and jobs for the youth who go through the program, the County has not entertained the possibility of paying offenders to stay out of trouble, as ONS does.
“My position is to look at what’s out there, see if it fits our community, because one size does not fit all,” he said. “We have to have community buy-in, whatever we do here… So I can’t sit in judgement of what they do, but I know that we’re always looking for best practices, and if those things fit our community, we’re definitely interested in looking at them going forward.”
Though their plans of attack are slightly different, both Boggan and Copeland agree, mentoring matters.
“We have to give them opportunities,” said Copeland. “If you take something away, you’ve got to give something back. We can tell them what NOT to do, but we have to tell them what TO do. We’ve have to make that possible for them. If we don’t make that possible, then we’re wasting our time. And then we have to be committed to it, long-term.”
Boggan says, addressing the underlying causes of violence, is the first step.
“The young men in our urban communities today are a product of not having positive people, positive experiences, positive connections, people who believe in them and see them as valuable,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most powerful things a mentor can do, is to believe in you, to trust you, to see your humanity… to see how special you are, how valuable you are, to see your future when you can’t see a future for yourself.”
After almost a decade, Boggan stepped down from his position at ONS to start “Advance Peace,” a nongovernmental organization dedicated to disrupting urban gun violence. He remains active in Operation Peacemaker, and still works out of the ONS office. Sam Vaughn has since assumed a leadership role there.
While Richmond saw a dramatic decline in homicides between 2007 and 2014, the killings nearly doubled in 2015.