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To Reduce Gun Violence, Potential Offenders Offered Support and Cash

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Joel Contreras (L) an Operation Peacemaker Fellow, and Joseph McCoy, a Neighborhood Change Agent with the Office of Neighborhood Safety, in Richmond. Fellows receive counseling, social services, a job and cash if they agree to stay in contact everyday and stay out of trouble. (Richard Gonzales/NPR)

Not long ago, the city of Richmond was considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. There was a skyrocketing homicide rate fueled by gangs of young men settling personal or territorial disputes.

But today, the city of about 100,000 residents is called a national model for reducing gun violence. Many cities around the country are adopting their unconventional strategy to prevent violence -- which includes paying potential criminals to stay out of trouble.

Joseph McCoy cruises around this tough blue collar town in a small city-owned car, listening for reports of shots fired on the police scanner. He is one of about a half dozen "neighborhood change agents" who keep track, sometimes a couple times a day, of scores of known gun offenders or youths at risk of being shot.

"If it is a shooting, we definitely go to check out see what's going on, because we try to create a pause on the next shooting," he says. "We're trying to figure out how to keep the next shooting from happening."


The agents are city employees and all ex-cons with serious street cred.

"Right now we're out doing outreach. There was two young people that had an altercation yesterday; they're brothers, a fist fight. So I need to go out here and make sure they're OK," he says as he rolled up to a run-down housing project and talked to three young men ages 19 to 23.

He talked to them for a few minutes about brothers respecting each other, keeping the peace at home and on the street. It's understood that McCoy won't speak to the police about anything said here.

"We do something real simple that folks just don't realize how, how powerful it is. We love on our youngsters! We come from a sincere place that we love each and every last one of the people we touch, and we try to touch as many people as possible," he says.

More Than Just 'Cash for Criminals'

This street outreach is just one part of a broader program designed by DeVone Boggan, the former director of a city department called the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Boggan was a community activist when he was first hired to do something about gun violence in 2007. Richmond had recorded 47 homicides that year.

"If you paid attention to media reports and the frequency of media reports about gun violence in Richmond, you would have believed that you were in Beirut," he says.

Boggan started the street outreach program in 2008 and saw immediate results. That year, there were 40 percent fewer homicides. But the number of murders climbed again in 2009.

Boggan then made a startling discovery in meetings with local law enforcement.

"What I continued to hear was folks believed that there were 17 people responsible for 70 percent of the firearm activity in our city. Seventeen people! We can do something about that," Boggan says.

Boggan and his team launched the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. They identified those 17 people and several more and made them an offer. The fellowship will give them counseling, social services, a job and a chance to travel if they develop a "life map," agree to stay in contact every day and stay out of trouble. Then the fellowship will pay them up to a $1,000 a month for nine months.

The result: Richmond has seen its murder rate cut in half since the fellowship began.

Boggan says the street patrols are paid by the city while the cash stipends come from private donors. He chuckles when he says media reports have called his program "cash for criminals."

"If you believe that simply paying someone a stipend will reduce gun crimes in cities where gun crimes are long and loud, you're wrong. We've done something much, much more comprehensive than that," he says.

Just ask 18-year-old Joel Contreras. He's big like a high school linebacker and has a mouthful of gold caps on his teeth. He says about a year ago he wasn't living right. He was involved with guns, robberies and trouble. Contreras says when he was first offered a chance to change his life, he turned it down.

"I walked away from him. Ten minutes later, I hit the corner. I get shot. The car got shot a couple times. Me and my friend were both injured," Contreras says.

Contreras says he doesn't know who shot him in the back of the neck or why. But when the outreach workers came back to see him, Contreras says he was ready to listen.

"They helped me get a job. They helped me get my driver's license. They was pushing me, pushing me, helping me out. They helped me get back in school, which I wouldn't be able to do without them. I graduated high school thanks to them," he says.

Replicating the Model Elsewhere

Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety borrows from similar models in Boston and Chicago. The difference is in Richmond's tight focus on a targeted group and the cash payments.

The approach is attracting interest from across the country. Washington D.C. is adopting a similar program, while Oakland and Toledo are among other cities considering the Richmond model.

"They always ask me, 'Is it going to work, and how much is it going to cost?'" says Angela Wolf, a researcher for the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. She wrote an evaluation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

Wolf says she advises other cities interested in the Richmond model to get ready for a multi-year commitment.

"If you have city leaders that aren't willing to think outside the box and try something different, this is going to be a harder program to get off the ground," she says.

That's especially true, says Wolf, if a city doesn't see immediate results.

Then there's the question of dealing with the local police.

"The ONS approach was pretty unorthodox when it started," says Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown.

He says he knows that ONS's "neighborhood change agents" don't cooperate or share information with his officers. But he says that while ONS' approach is different, they share a common goal.

"Here's the thing: We recognize that the problem is bigger that what we can deal with, and you know, arresting and incarcerating people isn't going to solve the problem. I mean, it just isn't," Brown says.

Despite Richmond's success, its struggle to stop gun violence is far from over. Homicides spiked to 21 last year after there were only 11 in 2014.

Boggan is stepping down as day-to-day director of the Richmond program to consult with other cities trying to replicate it. He says he's realistic about what can be accomplished.

"My wife reminds me often that gun violence in Richmond is much like diabetes, in that 'DeVone, you don't cure diabetes. What you do is you try to manage it,'" he says.

To do that, says Boggan, you have to connect with the people driving the violence and steer them in the right way.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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