To Stop Crime, Hand Over Cash

Devone L. Boggan, New York Times, July 4, 2015

I 2007, this city of about 100,000 people, north of Berkeley, [Richmond, CA] had the dubious distinction of being the ninth most dangerous in America. That year saw a total of 47 homicides. In some neighborhoods, gunfire was almost a daily event.

At one point, the City Council considered asking the governor to declare a state of emergency and send in the National Guard. Instead, in 2007, the city created the Office of Neighborhood Safety. (I am the founding director.) Our mission was simple: to tackle this epidemic of gun violence that was killing so many young men, mostly in our minority communities.

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A police liaison officer told us this startling fact: An estimated 70 percent of shootings and homicides in Richmond in 2009 were caused by just 17 individuals, primarily African-American and Hispanic-American men between the ages of 16 and 25.

We employed street-savvy staff members, whom we called neighborhood change agents. Think of their work as a kinder version of stop-and-frisk, more like stop-and-blend with the profile subjects, to build healthy, consistent relationships with those most likely to shoot or be a victim of gunfire.

Once we’d identified the city’s potentially most lethal young men, we invited them to a meeting (the first was in 2010). Then came the big innovation of the Operation Peacemaker fellowship program. We offered those young men a partnership deal: We would pay them–yes, pay them–not to pull the trigger.

The deal we offered was this: If they kept their commitment to us for six months–attended meetings, stayed out of trouble, responded to our mentoring–they became eligible to earn up to $1,000 a month for a maximum of nine months.

Predictably, this was controversial: Not everyone was a fan of this cash-for-peace strategy. We had skeptics and critics aplenty, including on the City Council. It was a bold measure, but would it work?

Shyeed, age 19, was one of Richmond’s most wanted. He had been tutored by his father and uncles to regard south Richmond as his. Like all sides in the confused gang wars, he had lost comrades and felt obliged to avenge them.

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He was wary at first. Either I was police (because of my haircut), he thought, or a “big pimp” because of my “fine threads.” Either way, he quipped, “Show me how to do you.”

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In most other cities, the law enforcement response to high rates of firearm assaults is stuck in a destructive cycle of police sweeps and mass incarceration. That strategy costs taxpayers a great deal, for little return. In many municipalities where gun violence is significant, the city’s public safety expenditure can be a considerable burden on the overall city budget. That is not sustainable.

Nationally, it is estimated that in 2012 gun violence cost more than $229 billion. The average cost to taxpayers of every gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000.

In contrast, the costs of our program were modest. In practice, we have rarely needed to pay the full amount offered under the terms of our deal: Just over half our fellowship participants receive payments, usually in the $300 to $700 range. So if our program prevented gun deaths, there could be little argument about cost-effectiveness.

It did. In the first year of Operation Peacemaker, homicides in Richmond fell to 22 (from 45 in 2009). In five years of our program, through 2014, we have seen the number of homicides in Richmond, which had averaged 40 a year, more than halved; firearm assaults in general fell by a similar proportion.

In 2014, we celebrated the lowest number of firearm assaults and homicides in more than four decades. Richmond recorded a 76 percent reduction in homicides and a 69 percent reduction in firearm assaults from 2007, when the Office of Neighborhood Safety was created.

In reality, we’ve achieved these results not simply by the cash incentive. Our change agents work with about 150 clients a year, at a cost of about $20,000 per person, which pays for daily mentoring, coaching and companionship. By comparison, it costs our city about $200,000 to hire one new police officer.

Not all of our fellows become model citizens overnight, but the results go beyond fewer shootings. More are in school or in jobs; there is more parenting, less drug use. And some have gone on to participate in other programs that are improving their prospects and our neighborhoods. I hope more cities will copy Richmond’s program. Encouragingly, the city of Oakland is incorporating some elements of our fellowship in its Operation Ceasefire work.

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