RICHMOND, Calif. — The four teens kick back and talk openly with their mentor. They discuss job opportunities, the need for support and the possibility of a trip out of state.
They’re relaxing in the lobby of a city agency, one outfitted with a couch and wing chairs to make it feel homey. Anything to provide relief from the hard streets of Richmond, California, once known as one of the most violent cities in America.
“What can I do better?” the mentor, Kevin Yarbrough, asks.
“Help us get out of Richmond and stuff,” one teen mumbles. “Get us far away.”
The conversation sounds like one any mentor might have with a group of inner-city teens in America.
But this is no ordinary group. The mentor is an ex-con working for the city. The teens are suspected of the worst types of crimes but haven’t faced prosecution, for lack of evidence. The mentor’s job: Get them to put down their guns, stop their violent ways and transform their lives beyond the streets.
“They’re babies growing up in a war zone,” says DeVone Boggan. “But the police would tell you they’re killers. ‘Serial killer’ is what a police officer might call some of these young men, because of what they’re suspected of doing.”
Boggan helped found the innovative city agency, the Office of Neighborhood Safety or ONS, in the fall of 2007 after gun violence spiraled out of control in Richmond, a city of about 100,000 just north of Berkeley.
Fueled by gang violence, neighborhood rivalries and large-scale unemployment among black youth, the violence led to 47 homicides in Richmond in 2007 — a record for the city and a rate more than eight times the national average.
By comparison, Oakland saw 30 killings per 100,000 residents that year; Chicago had nearly 16 per 100,000.
A drastic approach was needed to turn the tide. There was so much violence, the city even considered bringing in the National Guard to restore calm.
The next year, Boggan saw the killings drop to 27 — a 40% decline — as he began his strategy of hiring reformed ex-cons and sending them into the most violent neighborhoods to keep the peace.
But those gains were followed in 2009 by another spike of 47 killings. They had put too much emphasis on “hot spots” and not enough on individuals.
“We learned that focusing on hot spots [is] important, but they’re not more important than hot people,” Boggan says. “Why? Because hot people make hot spots.”
And so Operation Peacemaker was born. Loosely based on an academic fellowship, the ONS program invites some of the most hardened youth into the fold: often teenage boys suspected of violent crimes but whom authorities don’t have enough evidence to charge criminally.
These fellows must pledge to put their guns away for a more peaceful life. They are hooked up with mentors — the reformed criminals-turned-city workers — who offer advice, guidance and support to get jobs. If the fellows show good behavior after six months, they can earn a stipend of up to $1,000 a month.
Since the fellowship started, the city has seen dramatic results, including a low of 11 gun homicides in 2014 — the fewest number of people killed in Richmond in four decades.
The program has caught the attention of cities hoping to model programs with similar success, from Sacramento, California, to Toledo, Ohio, to Washington.
In the media, the fellowship is often dubbed “cash for criminals,” which makes Boggan’s eyes roll. He laughs because, although it’s true, the program is so much more. And it’s predicated on the most basic of human elements: “We harass them with love and kindness.”
To understand the hardships these young men face, he says, you must know that each has had family members, friends and neighbors killed — that it’s not uncommon for a 15-year-old to have known a dozen people killed in his young life.
“You grow up with that experience,” he says, “and it creates a great deal of hostility, anger, untreated vicarious trauma in your life.”
Of the four teens discussing job possibilities with their mentor, Yarborough, when CNN visited, one’s mother died when he was a young boy; another had a brother killed. Two are already fathers.
The way it works
The ONS relies on Yarborough and five other mentors, known as “neighborhood change agents,” to keep the pulse of hot-spot neighborhoods and the fellows within their program. The mentors, along with a few other part-time workers involved with street outreach, monitor police scanners for shootings and have neighborhood contacts who let them know when they sense that something bad is about to happen.
“Like if something’s going down,” says Yarborough, “somebody will call me and be like: It ain’t cool.”
He then touches base with his fellows to make sure they’re alive and confirm that they haven’t returned to their old ways.
The mentors, Boggan says, are not naive: They’ve all served time in local or federal facilities for some type of gun offense. One served 18 years in San Quentin State Prison for second-degree murder.
“It’s been cool knowing that I got some back-up help,” says T.K. Sykes, one of the fellows being mentored by Yarborough. “There’s a lot of stuff they’ve been through that I don’t want to go through. I’m glad they get to share those kinds of situations with me.”
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Boggan began his career in Oakland with Safe Passages, which works to break the cycle of violence through an array of programs.
When he moved his work to nearby Richmond, he says, he “decided to dedicate my life to reducing gun violence.” The Office of Neighborhood Safety, he says, was formed solely “to reduce violent assaults and associated deaths.”
Boggan studied and borrowed from other programs, most notably one created by David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Kennedy’s model, which has been implemented in dozens of cities, targets those individuals believed to be the most violent and brings them together for “Call Ins.”
Those sessions are headed up by law enforcement, who issue stern warnings and threaten harsh punishment. Often, the people invited are on parole, and their attendance is mandatory.
Boggan focused his program not on parolees but on teens and young men known to be active in gun violence who’ve escaped doing serious time. And Boggan took law enforcement out of the equation. He wanted to shower these youth with positivity, not threats of prison.
“So many approaches to these young men are uninformed and don’t take into account who these young men are and where they come from,” he says.
With the distrust between the black community and police, Boggan adds, having police try to persuade young men to stop their ways is not a long-term solution. Scaring people might stop violence for a short period, he says, but it won’t last.
His approach, Boggan admits, has led to “healthy tensions” between the ONS and local police.
“Our relationship with law enforcement is not perfect, but it gets better each day,” he says. “It’s important that we not have an adversarial relationship but clear separation and respect of those necessary lines.”
Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown says his department welcomes all efforts to reduce gun violence.
“The police, the justice system can’t do this whole thing,” he said. “There has to be multiple interventions. We get it.”
Since the program began, he said, more residents have come forward with information about shootings. That’s led gang rivals to take their grievances — and shootings — out of neighborhoods and onto the city’s interstates.
Still, Brown credits the agency with helping young men who are involved in “potential criminal activity” and “living outside the law” with choosing an “honest approach” instead.
Boggan believes the vast majority of youth in rough inner-city neighborhoods are inherently good and need to be exposed to new opportunities. With ex-felons as his change agents, he says, the teens are more likely to respond.
“That translates into trust on the street,” Boggan says. “And trust is a major commodity with what we do.”
At one point, he employed seven full-time mentors, but cutbacks reduced his staff to four full-time and two part-time mentors.
2015 saw gun homicides nearly double to 21, from the low of 11 in 2014. Boggan says staffing cuts may have played a role. “Less people touched, and the people touched are not being touched as often,” he says. “That’s certainly an impact.”
How it started
The most controversial part of the program — fellowships offering monthly stipends — began after gun violence jumped in 2009.
Boggan says he was sitting in a room with local, state and federal law enforcement discussing the root cause of the violence. They believed that 17 suspects were responsible for 70% of the 45 homicides that year.
“I began to see just how simple the problem was, albeit tough work,” Boggan says. “If we could find our way towards those 17 people in a more focused, intentional, deliberate way, then change could happen.”
It turned out the number was actually 28. He and his team of change agents put all of their efforts into reaching out to them within three months. He rolled out the red carpet, inviting them to meetings like he would anyone else he wanted to do business with.
His premise: “This city will not be healthy unless these young men are healthy.”
Three of the 28 young men were killed before the ONS could even get to them. That left 25. Of those, 21 — ranging in age from 16 to 26 — showed up. Each was receptive to change.
Unlike the “Call Ins” from the Kennedy model, the agency simply asks the youths to hear them out. It’s part of showing them a form of respect. “We have no authority to ‘call in’ anyone,” Boggan says. “We ask these young men to join us. We ask them to partner with us. We ask them into the family.”
Thus, the fellowship began. Boggan describes the 18-month program as similar to most any post-graduate work, but this one is “designed specifically for active firearm offenders who’ve avoided sustained criminal consequences.”
Each fellow commits to promoting peace in his community and to a life without guns. They get hooked up with jobs and anger-management experts. A life map is provided, detailing the barriers they face and what they must do to overcome them.
Six months into the fellowships, the young men can apply for the monthly stipend, which can go up to $1,000 depending on their participation and achievements. Most earn about $300 to $750 a month. They can make money for up to nine months.
He bristles when asked whether it’s a good idea to use tax dollars to pay people to stop committing violence. “That’s nothing compared to the cost of gun violence in this city,” Boggan says.
During the fellowships, the young men meet with mothers whose children were killed by gun violence. They visit colleges and meet business leaders. With the help of private donations, they’ve traveled to places like the nation’s capital and Chicago, as well as outside the country to spots in Mexico and South Africa.
Gang rivals get paired on trips so they can talk with one another and see each other as human beings. “To share their stories,” Boggan says, “is part of the healing process for these young men.”
A total of 68 fellows — “the most lethal young men most likely to be killed in our city” — have been through the program since June 2010. Ninety-four percent are still alive, and 79% have not been suspected of a new gun crime, Boggan says. Of the other 21%, one has been convicted of a gun homicide, 12 have been convicted of firearm possession, and eight have been suspects in shootings.
Some fellows who successfully complete the program are allowed to reapply for another 18 months. Most move on into the world. “They are no longer the person we met on Day 1 of the fellowship.”
Even after they leave, the ONS stays in contact with them, if for no other reason than to lend support when they might struggle.
The city has experienced a 76% reduction in gun homicides since the fellowship began in 2009, the agency says. The program can’t take all of the credit for the reduced crime, Boggan says; police work and an improved economy also play a part.
But he adds, “I would give the credit to the young men. When you actually focus on the very people involved in gun violence, I think you can’t argue that they’re not contributing to the safer environment happening in this city.”
Boggan recently stepped down as ONS director to form a nonprofit organization called Advance Peace. He remains contracted with the city of Richmond to help advise the office but will also work with other cities to build pilot programs similar to the one started here.
His life mission is to provide hope to troubled youth to “change the reality … of this epidemic facing our nation.”
“America’s gun violence,” he says, “is a national disgrace. We should be ashamed of ourselves.”
He will keep pushing for change.