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A local government-run program in Richmond, California, pays some young men up to $1,000 a month for as long as nine months if they achieve personal goals and stay out of trouble. The program targets some of the most dangerous people on the street, suspected, or previously convicted, of committing gun crimes. Those taking part also receive one-on-one counseling, job opportunities and mentoring. Yet critics say paying former criminals to reduce gun violence is the wrong approach. NewsHour's Megan Thompson has this report.
30-year-old Rohnell Robinson grew up in Richmond, California, just northeast of San Francisco. This industrial city of 100,000 was once considered one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.
A lot of the stuff that goes on around here — drugs, killings.
Robinson was only 14 when police caught him selling marijuana – the first of many run-ins with the law for drugs and gun possession. He says more than 10 friends have been killed by the gun violence that's plagued Richmond's urban neighborhoods.
And what was that like, seeing that around you?
You kind of kind of get immune to it. Because it happens so much. I mean, it's not a good thing.
Despite it all, Robinson graduated from high school and started college. But he says, when one of his best friends was shot to death, he slid off his path… pled guilty to possession of a gun….And spent two years in jail…and three-and-a-half on probation for conspiring with a known gang member.
What were you doing with the gun?
You see so much stuff happen, and you don't want to be that person. So it's pick up a gun, or just be around and probably get shot with no way to protect yourself.
When he got out, at his mother's urging, Robinson called Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety, a city program that works with young men like him who police consider high-risk for gun crimes. The goal is to keep them from getting into trouble again.
Robinson committed to a program called "Operation Peacemaker." He was required to create a "life map" – a set of personal goals. He went through drug treatment, and he held down a job as a janitor, which the program helped pay for.
And by doing all of that, after six months, he qualified for the program's boldest element: a cash payment, up to $1,000 a month for as long as 9 months. Robinson got a monthly stipend for the maximum 9 months – sometimes $1000, sometimes less, depending on how he was doing on his goals.
What did you do with the money?
I ended up getting my first apartment. Car. Just doing stuff that normal people would do. Bank accounts. It did a lot. It shows you that people care about you.
The bottom line in this work is no shooting.
Devone Boggan is a mentor for at-risk youth who previously ran a successful program in Oakland, 12 miles away. Nine years ago, the city of Richmond, desperate to tackle crime, recruited Boggan to launch the program, which began as street outreach — a tactic used with success in other cities. At the time, Richmond's homicide rate was at a record high.
Try to imagine growing up in a war zone. Bullets flying.
Richmond police believed that most of the shootings could be blamed on just a couple dozen young men.
If gun violence in this city was to decrease in any kind of way, that first would have to happen because these young men decided that it would decrease. Why not, create a different kind of mechanism to come at these guys from a different angle?
When you pay 'em this stipend are you just, in a sense, rewarding bad behavior?
Every bit of the stipend that they receive is tied to an accomplishment associated with their life map. Now, if the question is — do they deserve it? That's debatable. Why should these young men get that?
Why should they? I mean, there's a lot of guys out there who haven't committed crimes, or aren't suspected.
Because they need it more than that guy. And the communities where these young men live in, and shoot in, need for him to get it.
For Rohnell Robinson, the $1000-a-month stipend wasn't all. There were also educational trips abroad, chaperoned by Office of Neighborhood Safety staff. Robinson's been to London and Paris…and had to travel with someone from a rival neighborhood.
Come to find out we like the same things. We kind of act alike. We just two dudes from different sides of town. That don't mean we gotta not like each other.
While Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety is paid for with taxpayer dollars, the stipends are paid for by private foundations. There's also intense street outreach. Every day, a team of 6 so-called Neighborhood Change Agents — all from the community, and all with arrest records — drive the streets, making contact with men identified as being at-risk.
We're on our way to the North Richmond Projects.
Joe Mccoy grew up in these public housing projects. He spent four years in jail after pleading guilty to selling cocaine.
What's up with you? How you doing, man?
Mccoy checks in almost daily with Grady Hudson and his older brother Trovante. Both have been arrested for gun possession. Mccoy pesters Grady about attending a life skills class.
You got there on time yesterday, like you was supposed to?
Yeah, I got there on time.
When Grady was 17, he spent 6 months in juvenile detention for bringing a gun to school.
Due to territorial issues, I was kind of scared around here, so I had to protect myself by arming.
Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety helped Grady – now 19 – sign up for temp jobs, and offered him a life skills class to deal with anger issues. But Grady says he's got more to work on.
My head is elsewhere. It's not focused on school material right now. But, like, I'm trying to get — I'm trying to get that together, and get my diploma.
If he does get it together, Grady could be eligible for the monthly stipend that Rohnell Robinson received.
The program aims to save lives in a really unconventional way.
Alwynn Brown is Richmond's new Chief of Police, and has been with the department for 31 years. He says he supports Operation Peacemakers' "unconventional" methods.
Some people look at the Fellowship Program and they say, "couldn't we be doing something better with this money?"
Do you want to have, you know, young people who've been identified as being fairly lethal out doing what they usually do, or do you want to disrupt those kinds of life choices, and have them do something else.
Brown acknowledges, for the Neighborhood Change Agents, it's all about building trust with the young men — which can be difficult for the police.
We're talking about people who have grown up living outside the law. Well, we're the law. I mean, that's not an easy connection to make.
But Neighborhood Change Agents have a strict rule — they don't share information with police.
Isn't that frustrating for you?
I get it. We understand that they need to have credibility with the folks that they're trying to reach.
Richmond City Councilmember Gayle Mclaughlin became Mayor in 2007, and helped create the Office of Neighborhood Safety, when crime was spiking.
I was facing a council at that time that wanted to declare a state of emergency every time a spike of violence happened and bring in the National Guard.
She says the city needed a new approach.
Some councilmembers were not ready to put some city funding into such a program. They were talking more about more police.
Now on the City Council herself, she continues to fund the office and says it's been a success.
The vast majority of the young people have stayed out of trouble.
68 men have completed the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship so far. And according to the program, only about 20 percent have been arrested or charged for new gun crimes. 13 Were convicted, and got kicked out of the program. Richmond's crime problem has improved, too — although it still has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the Bay Area.
The number of murders here in Richmond has fallen by half in the last decade — from 42 in 2006, to 21 in 2015.
Other cities are now replicating Richmond's Operation Peacemaker program – including Washington, DC, Toledo, OH and Oakland, CA. In Washington, which, unlike Richmond, would use taxpayer money to fund the stipends, the mayor has said she opposes the idea — saying resources should be spent instead on jobs programs.
Oakland city officials came to meet with Devone Boggan about their launch of the program in the next few months. But Mary Theroux, Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute in Oakland, a think tank focused on personal freedoms, says she's not sure the program can be credited with the drop in crime. For instance, Richmond's Police Department has also overhauled its gun violence strategies.
We had a decline in crime nationally in the same period. We certainly had lots of other factors. Economic factors can be huge, demographic factors
While the program demands that fellows make and achieve personal goals, Theroux thinks it should go further, and require them to hold down a job or finish a degree.
So, I think it's very important that we find out if this program is really helping them, or if it's just essentially freezing them in place, and if there are other things we could be doing that would be helping them much more, have much more opportunities.
Devone Boggan says, in Richmond, that's not the point.
Success to us is not whether or not he becomes a model citizen. Success, to us, is about whether or not he uses a firearm to address conflict.
Look at my life. It's not the greatest, but they put me — they put my mind frame in something better
Rohnell Robinson left his janitor job and is training for a higher skilled job in the oil industry. He says he's left his past life of crime behind.
If I thought then how I thought now, I definitely wouldn't — would have never, never, ever picked up a gun.
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