Reducing violent crime has been a focus in Richmond. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Rasheed always knew there was a world beyond Richmond. But he wasn't sure he would live to see it.
“Soon as I think outside the box, with attention going outside the box, it’s like shoot, I’m dead,” he said. “You see what I’m saying? Or I’m losing.”
Rasheed, who didn't want his last name published, said that by the time he was 18 he knew more than a dozen people who had been killed or were in prison.
"You go into survival mode,” he said. “You have to adapt. You don’t want nobody taking your food, you don’t want nobody killing you, you don’t want nobody using you, disrespecting you, so you gonna adapt to your situation."
Then in 2008, Rasheed was hanging out with some friends when city workers offered him an Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. The program gives participants training and support to help them stay out of trouble -- and pays them up to $1,000 to do so.
His first reaction to the offer: “OK, did the police send you out to us? Are you all trying to basically set us up in some way? That’s how we were thinking at first.”
After learning more about the fellowship, Rasheed decided to try it. After all, he had a 4-month-old son to support.
“It’s [parenthood] going to motivate you to be a better person,” he said. “It did me. 'Cause it was kind of like, it scare you, but then it make you happy at the same time.”
Richmond's fellowship program was part of a city-backed effort to treat gun violence as a public health problem, not just as a crime issue, according to Mayor Tom Butt. The program began in 2007, when the city's homicide rate was soaring. Now cities around the country are considering similar strategies, using lessons learned from Richmond.
“We didn’t know whether it was going to work or not,” said Butt, who was a city councilman in 2007. “But we were sort of desperate, and it was a governmental obligation that we had to address this gun violence issue.”
DeVone Boggan created the program, after analyzing city crime data. He found that a small percentage of the population committed most of the shootings in the city. By targeting that specific population -- the young men most likely to shoot or get shot -- Boggan believed he could have the greatest impact on reducing gun violence.
“We’re the only agency in the city of Richmond that is engaging the one-percenters — those individuals who are the most lethal young men in our city, who continue to walk our streets,” he said.
Boggan's office employs a number of approaches to reduce crime, of which the fellowship program is just one. But, owing to the stipend it pays participants, that program has received the most attention. The stipends, however, are funded by foundation grants, not taxpayer dollars.
“The stipend is a gesture of saying you are valuable, your expertise is valuable, your contribution to this work of creating a healthier city is valuable,” Boggan said. “Hell, we should be giving you more.”
According to Boggan, the program succeeds because it helps participants forge relationships that aren’t based on fear or hate or grief.
Rasheed, who completed his fellowship in 2010, calls the program staff “the lost positive fathers of Richmond." He said they gave him "a model of what your mom would want you to be.”
The 25-year-old has since moved out of the city, recently earned his commercial driver's license, and is hoping to build a career in trucking. He lovingly described his 7-year-old son as a nerd.
“He reads and knows his math, and like, he’s like a kid. A real kid,” he said.
Last year, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency evaluated the success of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and found that the overwhelming majority of the program's 68 graduates haven't been involved in a shooting. According to its report, 94 percent of fellows are still alive, 84 percent haven’t been injured by a firearm, and 79 percent have not been arrested for any new, firearm-related offense.
Cities across the country have taken notice of those stats. On March 1, the Council of the District of Columbia voted to establish an Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, modeled after Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. Toledo, Ohio and Oakland are also considering similar programs.
Boggan, who is stepping down from his post later this month to help other cities implement his ideas, warns there is no quick fix.
“What we do here requires that we appreciate and understand the anatomy of who these young men are,” he said. “And that’s work. It’s much more than paying a criminal not to shoot.”
And despite the success of the program, gun violence remains a problem in Richmond. After the city's homicide rate hit a 33-year low in 2014, violent crime spiked last year.
“If it turns into a new trend, you know, I think we need to take a hard look at what we’re doing and see if we need to do more of it or do it differently or do something else,” Mayor Butt said.