By Aaron C. Davis
RICHMOND, Calif. — The odds were good that Lonnie Holmes, 21, would be the next person to kill or be killed in this working-class suburb north of San Francisco.
Four of his cousins had died in shootings. He was a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting, police said. And he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun.
But when Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money. They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.
Cities across the country, beginning with the District of Columbia, are moving to copy Richmond’s controversial approach because early indications show it has helped reduce homicide rates.
But the program requires governments to reject some basic tenets of law enforcement even as it challenges notions of appropriate ways to spend tax dollars.
In Richmond, the city has hired ex-convicts to mentor dozens of its most violent offenders and allows them to take unconventional steps if it means preventing the next homicide.
For example, the mentors have coaxed inebriated teenagers threatening violence into city cars, not for a ride to jail but home to sleep it off — sometimes with loaded firearms still in their waistbands. The mentors have funded trips to South Africa, London and Mexico City for rival gang members in the hope that shared experiences and time away from the city streets would ease tensions and forge new connections.
And when the elaborate efforts at engagement fail, the mentors still pay those who pledge to improve, even when, like Holmes, they are caught with a gun, or worse — suspected of murder.
The city-paid mentors operate at a distance from police. To maintain the trust of the young men they’re guiding, mentors do not inform police of what they know about crimes committed. At least twice, that may have allowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.
And yet, interest in the program is surging among urban politicians. Officials in Miami, Toledo, Baltimore and more than a dozen cities in between are studying how to replicate Richmond’s program.
The District of Columbia is first in line.
Implementing the Richmond model has emerged as a central fight this year between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the D.C. Council.
Bowser (D) is opposed to the strategy, arguing that the city should instead use its resources to fund jobs programs and that there is little independent analysis of the Richmond program. The mayor did not include money for it in her proposed 2017 budget released Thursday, and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she is skeptical of the need for the Richmond-style program and has not seen sufficient data to verify its results.
She and Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, question the veracity of Richmond’s claims of having saved so many of the city’s most violent offenders, since mentors — and not police — pick the participants and there has not been a control group used to measure outcomes. “There’s never been a real evaluation of the program,” Lanier said. “They didn’t design the program to allow it to be evaluated,” Donahue added.
But this month, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the idea as the best response to a surge of violent deaths that rocked the city last year. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has promised to shift money from the mayor’s other law-enforcement priorities to launch the program. He said the successes in Richmond cannot be ignored by city leaders serious about reducing crime.
That’s because five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort.
City leaders credit the program with cutting Richmond’s homicide rate to less than half and helping it shed its reputation as one of the nation’s deadliest cities.
Those results have won over a pair of Richmond police chiefs, a series of mayors and even a sometimes-skeptical City Council, which continues to fund it despite budget shortfalls.
“Richmond was bold enough to take an untested step and try this model of really direct and intense intervention,” Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown said. “And it’s dealing with the violence in the right way: teaching these kids basic life skills and how to not resort to a gun and operate in a civil society.”
Richmond’s decision to pay people to stay out of trouble began a decade ago during a period of despair.
In 2007, Richmond’s homicide tally had surged to 47, making it the country’s sixth-deadliest city per capita. In the 20 years prior to that, Richmond lost 740 people to gun violence, and more than 5,000 had been injured by a bullet.
Elected leaders of the heavily African American city of about 100,000 began treating homicides as a public health emergency.
Boggan, who had lost a brother in a shooting in Michigan, came up with the core of the program after reading about a paid business school fellowship. He wondered whether troubled young men couldn’t be approached the same way and be paid to improve their lives. But he had to raise the money because he couldn’t persuade officials to give tax dollars directly to violent firearms offenders.
He hired men who had served time across San Francisco Bay at California’s San Quentin State Prison, often for their own gun crimes on the streets of Richmond.
Boggan and his streetwise crew of ex-cons selected an initial group of 21 gang members and suspected criminals for the program. One night in 2010, he persuaded them to come to city hall, where he invited them to work with mentors and plan a future without guns. As they left, Boggan surprised each one with $1,000 — no strings attached.
“No cop had ever handed them money without asking for something in return,” Boggan said. “And it had the intended effect. It sent a shock wave through the community. People sat up and began watching.”
Boggan’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship is working with its fourth class of recruits, and he no longer needs to wow participants with money upfront. Dozens of former fellows on the streets of Richmond — alive and not in jail — are his best advertisement, he said.
Those in the program begin by drafting a “life map” and setting goals — such as applying for a job, going back to school or communicating better with family. They meet with facilitators who, unbeknown to the young men, are psychologists or sociologists. Together, they talk through issues in what amounts to stealth therapy.
If they remain engaged for six months, meeting with mentors several times a week, they start to receive monthly payments between $1 and $1,000, depending on their level of participation. The maximum amount paid is $9,000 over the 18-month fellowship.
The program has handed out $70,000 a year, on average, since 2010, Boggan said.
Boggan believes that travel is another key to the program’s success. He sets aside $10,000 per fellow for trips that are often the first time participants have left the state or the country. But fellows must agree to partner with someone they have either tried to kill or who attempted to kill them.
“Wild, right?” Boggan says. “But they get out there and realize, ‘Hey, this cat’s just like me.’ ” Boggan’s measure of success: No fellows who have traveled together have been suspected in subsequent shootings against one another.
Boggan and his staff are used to questions — and criticism — about the money. How do they know it doesn’t go to drugs? Or bullets?
They maintain that the money is an indispensable tool, a way to keep kids engaged long enough to make a difference in their lives.
“This is controversial, I get it,” Boggan said. “But what’s really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work, and it’s definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems.”
Sam Vaughn, a senior mentor, is more direct as he sits behind the wheel of a city-issued sedan on a recent morning, cruising a neighborhood looking for those who are in the program.
“We don’t know where it goes, and I’m not sure we always would want to know where it goes,” he said. Program managers, such as Vaughn, say they hope that the young men come to realize that the money is best spent on bills and making progress toward a safe, secure livelihood. He offers his own past as a cautionary tale: He beat a man into a vegetative state with the barrel of a gun and served 10 years in prison.
Vaughn turns a corner and stops at the sight of a black car parked in front of a row of vacant houses pockmarked by bullet holes.
Holmes rolls down his window upon seeing Vaughn. A cloud of marijuana smoke escapes into the rainy morning.
So far, the attention — and money — seems to be working for Holmes. Although the $1,500 he has received since getting out of prison last fall has not led to a miraculous transformation, it enabled him to make a down payment on his black 2015 Nissan Versa — something meaningful for a young man who for many years was homeless.
He now spends hours each day in the car, driving around with friends, often smoking pot but not “hunting” — Vaughn’s term for seeking conflict with rivals.
Holmes is worried about how he’ll afford the $500 monthly car payments and insurance once the program ends. He has applied to get a job as an Uber driver.
Money from the program has helped Holmes stay straight, he said.
“The money is a big part,” Holmes says. “I can’t count the number of times it has kept me from . . . doing what I’ve got to do. It stopped me from going to hit that liquor [store] or this, you feel me, it’s a relief to not have to go do this and endanger my life for a little income, you feel me?”
Holmes hits up Vaughn for $5 for a quart of oil. Vaughn tries to use it as a teachable moment and reaches into his pocket. “You’ve got to protect your investment — you need an oil change,” Vaughn explains.
Holmes settles back in the car and picks up a new blunt passed from a buddy in the back seat. He paused before inhaling. “If they do this in D.C., definitely, I think it will keep robberies down,” he said.
Nothing in the Richmond approach is black and white. Mentors operate with the support of the city in an ethical gray zone, often trying to anticipate the next shooting before it happens and then using the levers of the stipend and relationships to defuse conflict before it turns violent.
Success one day can morph into a setback the next, and consequences can be fatal.
On a recent day, three of the program’s 20 fellows sat in jail, charged with violating parole restrictions after they gathered with suspected gang members. One of them also was carrying a gun when police descended on the hangout, which means he could face a long term if convicted.
There have been worse failures.
Four of the program’s fellows have died since 2010, including two who were killed by other fellows, said Boggan and Vaughn. The suspected killers have not been charged and remain in the program.
“We’ve still got to deal with that fellow,” Vaughn said. “Because who’s to keep him from killing another one . . . ?”
Although the program appears to largely be working for its small group of recruits, homicides citywide are rising again, raising questions about its wider impact across Richmond.
After reaching a record low 11 homicides in 2014, killings nearly doubled in Richmond last year and are on pace to match that again this year.
And Boggan, 49, and Vaughn, 39, say their fourth class of recruits, younger than the first three — are progressing surprisingly slowly, and the mentors acknowledge that they are having a harder time connecting with the class of “youngsters.”
Vaughn and other mentors gather each morning to scour fellows’ Facebook and Instagram accounts, noting emojis of guns and bullets and references to past killings for signs of brewing conflict.
But two killings in the past month — of a 14-year-old and 15-year-old — have pierced the aura of success. For all the efforts by the mentors to identify the most likely to be caught in violence and bring them into the program, they weren’t aware of either of the victims.
Many details of how the District would replicate Richmond’s program have yet to be determined, but one aspect is clearly more complicated than in Richmond.
While the California strategy relies on private donors to fund the stipends and travel, the District would probably use roughly a half-million dollars annually in taxpayer money.
Asked whether he could justify the expense if it came from the city’s general fund, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt was uncertain. “I’d try really hard to find outside funding,” he said.
Vaughn applauds the District for proposing to use tax dollars, because he said it would give city residents and leaders a stake in the program’s success. The proof of whether it’s working will be seen in the city’s homicide tally, he said.
“We don’t have any model fellows — we’re not graduating law school students here,” said Vaughn. “All we’re trying to do is to get these guys to stop killing each other.”