How to reduce gun crime in California? Why not pay people not to shoot each other?

A mentoring scheme set up in Richmond, shows encouraging signs of success – using a cash incentive

Richmond, California

Dequan Wright, a cocky, charming former high school football player from Richmond, California, was only 14 when he was sentenced to a year in jail for firearms offences.

Of the 12 other boys he called close friends when he was growing up, one is dead and 10 are behind bars. He would most likely be back there too, he says, if not for the involvement of the Office of Neighbourhood Safety (ONS), an experimental mentorship programme introduced to the city several years ago in a desperate bid to stem the flow of shooting deaths.

Now 20, Wright wants to become a barber and a responsible father to his two young sons. The ONS is trying to find somewhere for him to train, and trying to keep him out of trouble. Not long ago, he recalls, he drove to the wrong part of town, apparently to provoke a showdown with some local rivals. ONS workers read his mind. “I made it to the park and they were already there. They told me I should leave,” he says. Without that intervention, “Something would probably have happened – and I probably would have been incarcerated.”

While homicide rates have fallen dramatically across the US over the past two decades, many cities and neighbourhoods still suffer from endemic urban gun violence that is easily forgotten amid the coverage of mass shootings. Richmond, a community of about 100,000  so close to wealthy San Francisco that its residents can see the skyscrapers across the Bay, is one such city.

Decades of tough policing failed to alleviate the problem, and in 2007 the authorities turned to youth mentoring consultant Devone Boggan to implement a new strategy. “People say: you have to deal with the race problem, the education problem, the employment situation, gun policy. I agree,” Boggan says. “But we didn’t have the luxury of time to deal with all those things. What makes the ONS one-of-a-kind is that it has a single, specific focus: reduce firearm-related assault and injury. The question we ask ourselves is: how do I get these young men to stop shooting today?”

With that mission in mind, Boggan and his associates use a combination of crime records, street smarts and information from the community to identify the Richmond residents most likely to engage in gun violence, and then offer them the opportunity to join the ONS Peacemaker Fellowship, an 18-month outreach programme for young men failed by the legal system or by social services. Boggan says around 80 per cent accept the invitation.

Headquartered at City Hall, the ONS operates with the co-operation but not the collaboration of Richmond police. Each of the fellows is mentored by one of six ONS case managers – five of whom are former convicted felons – who train them to avoid the conflicts that might lead to violence, and help them to create a “life plan” that includes career and family goals. The fellows are even offered the chance to travel abroad, as long as they agree to go alongside rivals who might once have been keen to kill them. Boggan has led visits to Mexico and South Africa, and they have never led to trouble.

The Peacemaker Fellowship borrows aspects of other programmes that proved successful in cities such as Boston and Chicago, but its most novel innovation has also proved to be its most controversial: it offers a cash incentive to its participants. Every two months, if they take up an internship organised by ONS, or achieve another of their stated goals, the fellows can receive a stipend of between $300 and $1,000 (£580). The city provides an operating budget for the ONS, but the stipends are funded by private donors.

Boggan says less than 50 per cent of the fellows have ever received a stipend, and of those that have, few received the full $1,000. His critics accuse him of paying criminals to behave, but the tactic might just be working. In 2009 there were 45 homicides in Richmond. In 2013 there were 16 – the lowest number since 1980. There have been just seven so far this year.

Boggan, 47, is easily identified by a houndstooth trilby that belonged to his earliest mentor, his grandfather. His father departed the family’s Michigan home when he was nine, leaving his mother in dire financial straits and young Devone resentful of male authority figures. His youngest brother was killed on the streets of Michigan, and as a teenager he was arrested for selling drugs.

If not for the intervention of two more mentors – a college track star who volunteered at a local youth club, and a 10th Grade history teacher – Boggan might have followed a darker path. Instead he ended up at Berkeley, and became a mentor himself. Those two inspirational figures believed in him, he says, “and so I rose to the occasion. That’s what we deal with here in Richmond. We give these young men something positive to aspire to.”

ONS case worker Sam Vaughn is a smart, affable 38-year-old with a basketball player’s build, who first met Boggan in 2008 after completing a 10-year sentence at San Quentin for attempted murder. Richmond has changed little since he was young, Vaughn says. “The clothing and haircuts are different but the situations are the same. I  wish somebody had been there to tug me in the right direction when I was 21. I would have responded. I was an insecure boy with man’s responsibilities and I didn’t have the capacity to deal with them in a responsible way.”

Richmond is too small to have a serious gang problem; instead, its violence tends to fit into a more personal cycle of grudges and revenge. Vaughn and his colleagues make it their business to know when a dispute is simmering, and when and where it might come to the boil. Their pool of potential fellows is modest: police believe 70 per cent of the shootings that took place in 2009 were carried out by just 17 people. Each mentor works with between 15 and 18 fellows at a time.

Homicide rates are falling faster in Richmond than nationally, though Boggan readily admits that scaling up his initiative as a model for bigger cities may be difficult. So far, there is not even any data to prove the ONS is responsible for the progress, which is why the National Council on Crime and Delinquency is conducting a three-year study of the Peacemaker Fellowship. Even if his strategy is validated by the study, Boggan refuses to claim the credit. “The fellowship is a partnership with these young men, and they are ultimately responsible for the reductions in gun violence,” he says, “because they’re the ones who made the decision to stop shooting.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes