Public Safety & Homeland Security

Fifty Men Commit Most Gun Crimes in Sacramento. Could Money, Mentoring Get Them to Stop?

The city is being asked to commit $1 million over four years in an attempt to target 'the most lethal young men walking the streets.'

by Anita Chabria , The Sacramento Bee / August 7, 2017
AP/Rich Pedroncelli

(TNS) - When someone is shot in Sacramento, Calif., it’s a good bet that one of about 50 mostly black or Latino young men pulled the trigger.

Police know it. The figure comes in part from a city analysis of five years of homicide data and intelligence, said Khaalid Muttaqi, director of the city’s gang prevention and intervention task force.

Community members know it. The men are often well-established troublemakers in their neighborhoods, said activists who gathered recently in south Sacramento to discuss the problem.

DeVone Boggan knows it, too. In Richmond, where he runs an anti-gun violence program called Advance Peace, he has befriended 84 men considered most likely to kill with a gun there.

The truth about gun crimes, said Boggan, is that a small number of known shooters cause an outsize amount of trauma. They can be hard to catch, he said, and few have tried to reach them with anything but enforcement.

Boggan has taken a different approach. His Advance Peace initiative, backed by philanthropic and government funding, identified Richmond’s most active firearm-wielding criminals and tried to get them to change their ways through intensive one-on-one intervention, including therapy, mentoring and offering to pay them when they reached agreed-upon goals.

Boggan, supported by Sacramento City Councilman Rick Jennings, is proposing to bring Advance Peace to Sacramento.

In September, the Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to try Boggan’s program to reduce gun violence and gun-related homicides. The city is being asked to commit $1 million over four years in an attempt to target “the most lethal young men walking the streets,” Boggan said.

Reformed felons would serve as mentors. Participants, called “fellows,” would receive around-the-clock support along with cash stipends paid in increments for reaching milestones such as beating substance abuse, getting a high school diploma or improving parenting skills.

A month before the City Council vote, resistance to the idea of Advance Peace is simmering in Sacramento’s law enforcement community and among some on the City Council. District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said she has “many concerns” and that Sacramento already has community organizations that “provide excellent youth mentoring and intervention programs.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, in an email interview, said he has “fundamental objections” to the program and to the idea of paying “people just to (not) commit crimes or shoot people.”

Boggan conceded that the cash payments, which could total $9,000 over 18 months, are part of what makes Advance Peace a “tough sell.” He emphasized that none of the money given to participants would come from the city. Instead, it would come from philanthropic donations.

“We are paying people to reach goals; we are not paying people not to commit crimes,” Sacramento Assistant City Manager Arturo Sanchez told a crowd of three dozen gathered in July at a community meeting at Fruitridge Community Collaborative. The meeting was organized by Sacramento Area Congregations Together so people could hear Boggan speak and learn more about the program.

Those who support bringing Advance Peace to Sacramento argue the current approach isn’t working. Les Simmons, a pastor and activist in south Sacramento, said many of those who work in the city’s most violent neighborhoods think it’s smart to go after triggermen in new ways.

“You can’t arrest your way out of this problem,” said Simmons, who attended the community meeting with Boggan.

‘Trauma survivors’

In Sacramento, the clearance rate for homicides was 55.8 percent in 2015, according to the latest data available from the state Department of Justice, significantly less than the national average of 61.5 percent reported through FBI figures.

Of 21 homicides that have occurred in Sacramento in 2017, police have made arrests in 13 cases, according to the Sacramento Police Department. Twelve of those murders involved a gun. Last year, there were 24 gun-related homicides. The department declined to say how many of those had been solved without a Public Records Act request. That request is pending.

The numbers highlight the Catch-22 of gun violence: It’s notoriously difficult to solve gang-related homicides in communities where residents distrust police as much as they fear criminals, as is true in many of Sacramento’s poorest and most diverse areas. But without information, many killers are never caught, leaving some people in these neighborhoods feeling law enforcement isn’t helping them.

“Here’s a population that we can see … law enforcement has had a very difficult time addressing,” said Boggan. “The goal of it is, how do we keep our guy that everybody believes is a shooter (but) we can’t prosecute him – we know he’s responsible for recurrent activity. How do we keep him from crossing that line?”

Boggan said that of the 84 men who have been Advance Peace fellows in Richmond, five are dead and 10 are in jail. Most of the others are doing pretty well – working jobs, going to college, raising their children.

Even the ones still committing crimes are causing less trouble, and are no longer using a gun as their go-to problem solver, Boggan said.

An independent review of Advance Peace by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found 83 percent of fellows have avoided injury by a firearm since going through the program. Seventy-seven percent haven’t had a new firearm charge or arrest.

Boggan said Richmond itself is the success story: The city has seen a 57 percent drop in gang-related gun homicides and a 51 percent drop in gun-related assaults in the six-year period from 2010 to 2016 when Advance Peace has been running, compared to the previous six years, according to Advance Peace data collected through the Richmond Police Department.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay confirmed gun violence was “way down” and said that while Advance Peace “pushes the envelope a little bit,” media and public attention on the stipends is a “disservice” to the program and a “simplistic” way to look at it.

He said Advance Peace is an integral part of the city’s three-pronged strategy of prevention, enforcement and intervention to reduce gun violence. While police handle the first two, Boggan’s team is in charge of the third.

“(S)o very frequently the intervention piece is missing or underfunded,” said Lindsay. “I believe that there are fewer homicides as a direct result of their interventions.”

Those who support bringing Advance Peace to Sacramento – with Vice Mayor Jennings at the forefront – say it’s a smart approach that acknowledges shooters are made by environment and expectation, not genetics. The 50 men most likely to pull the trigger are also most likely to be shot, and come from families of perpetrators and victims, said Boggan.

Every shooter in Boggan’s program in Richmond has been shot or had a family member shot. “Gun violence typically breeds gun violence, because it’s cyclical and retaliatory,” he said.

He said the violence often has less to do with organized gangs than it does personal rivalries and neighborhood cliques. “We’ve got beefs around respect issues, historical beefs,” Boggan said.

Intervening with the worst of the worst, Boggan’s theory goes, can break the cycle not just for those families, but for neighborhoods. He always involves rivals in his groups so that they can figure out new ways of dealing with each other.

“These 50 will influence the second 50,” Jennings said. “These 50 will influence their children and grandchildren.”

Uncle Tommy

Jennings said he knows first hand how changing one hard-case kid can help.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., he said he wasn’t as bad as the “one-percenters” who commit gun crimes, but added that “I can guarantee you I was in the top 25 percent.”

It was his Uncle Tommy who intervened.

“I was stupid myself growing up and Uncle Tommy came in and all the sudden changed my course,” said Jennings.

Tommy taught Jennings to look a person in the eye when they met. When Jennings got it right, he earned $20. When he got it wrong, he owed his uncle 20 push-ups.

“He took me away from the stupidity of myself to become the vice mayor of Sacramento,” Jennings said. He sees Advance Peace as a way to provide such mentors for young men who never had anyone showing them a way out of generational violence and poverty.

“Who is investing in these fifty?” he asks. “The sad thing is we are talking about youth that have no interventions, that have had no chance to habilitate, much less rehabilitate.”

Boggan said shooters are kids who grew up in “atmospheric trauma” and “chaos” every day, and often go minute-to-minute fearing for their safety and the safety of loved ones.

“If you can’t embrace that because you get caught up on what they have been suspected of doing, understand that they are all trauma survivors and they should be treated like we treat all trauma survivors. Let’s get them some help,” Boggan said.

A blue-eyed, middle-class 50-year-old with light black skin and a penchant for a gray fedora, Boggan had never lived a life like Jennings’ when he came up with the idea for interventions in 2007. He knew he couldn’t really understand the men he wanted to change and more importantly, he knew they wouldn’t understand or trust him. They didn’t want his social services or his help.

So, with the backing of city leaders in Richmond, he hired convicted gun felons as ambassadors – ones who came from the corners where the young gunners now ruled, but who still had their respect and “a license to operate unafraid.”

His hires – who received city salaries and benefits – also needed to be examples, leading stable lives.

In Richmond, Boggan brought on three known criminals with street credibility to recruit his first group of 21 fellows in 2010.

The old-timers invited their successors to a meeting at City Hall, where Boggan handed each one a personal check for $1,000 to get their attention, then offered to “blow their mind on life,” Boggan said.

“I needed to create a shockwave,” Boggan said of the money. Now, fellows have to wait at least six months before earning payments, and some never earn substantial amounts if they don’t hit hard goals that are set for each participant individually and monitored by staff. In his last class, Boggan had a budget of $198,000 but only gave out $96,000 he said.

“I knew I had them. I could see it on their faces,” said Boggan, remembering what happened when the first fellows saw the checks. “Shooters, you throw them a real lifeline, and they think it’s credible and legitimate on their end, they’re jumping on it. They want out.”

It was the start of an every day relationship that took the men through cognitive behavioral therapy, mentoring and life-skills training.

The curriculum included a trip to Disneyland for “transformative travel,” which Boggan explains as helping participants grasp that the world is bigger than their neighborhood, and allowing them a few days in a place where they’re not afraid of being killed.

Law enforcement wary

Boggan said the cost of gun violence should also be considered when talking about the stipends paid to the fellows.

The San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence analyzed lethal shootings in Sacramento in 2016 and found gun-related injuries cost $49,164 per incident in medical bills. Local agencies spent $439,217 per incident to investigate.

Lethal gun violence cost the region $14.6 million in a single year, wrote Mike McLively, senior staff attorney for the center, in a letter to the City Council.

Boggan said in Sacramento, none of the stipend money for fellows would come from the city. Along with philanthropic heavyweights like the California Endowment, Boggan is backed by high-profile Silicon Valley venture capital foundation Draper Richards Kaplan, which is banking on the idea that Boggan’s model can be replicated nationwide.

“These are guys who for whatever reason haven’t been put in jail, and to me the choice is do nothing while they are out on the street and not arrestable or do something about it,” said Carter Stewart, managing director of DRK Foundation and a former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor. “As long as people treat them as less than human, then ... there’s not going to be the intensive outreach of services that is necessary to get to the root of the problem.”

Stewart said the foundation is giving Boggan $300,000 over three years with the plan to expand to two California cities. Sacramento and Stockton are the top contenders, though Boggan said 35 cities nationwide have contacted him.

Boggan has committed to bringing $500,000 a year into the Sacramento program in addition to the $250,000 the city would contribute annually. Each fellow costs the program about $40,000 a year.

He promises to reduce firearm assaults and firearm-related homicides by 50 percent in four years.

Along with active shooters, Boggan also plans on going “downstream” in Sacramento to reach younger kids who are likely to become firearm offenders but haven’t yet.

The Advance Peace model remains especially sensitive for law enforcement. Boggan said he relies on police to share information with him on people they suspect of being shooters, but he doesn’t share information with them in turn about crimes his fellows may have committed.

That tenuous relationship with law enforcement was cited by Jones, the Sacramento County sheriff, as another concern he had with the program.

Boggan said the one-way flow of intelligence from police to him is a critical part of the program’s success. If his fellows think he’s talking to police, they’ll leave.

“We’re not required to, not going to,” said Boggan. “It’s challenging. ... (Police) think, ‘They’re out there helping the criminals be better criminals.”

Still, Boggan said Advance Peace isn’t a “get out of jail free card.”

He tells fellows if police can prove they committed a crime, they’ll go to jail just like any other criminal, fellow or not.

“If they have committed a crime that is a crime that they can be held responsible for, they will be locked up,” said Jennings. “They will suffer the consequences of that crime.”

Jennings’ backing aside, political will is mixed on adopting Advance Peace in Sacramento.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he strongly supports the concept – including the payments if they are tied to tangible reform.

“Focusing on these guys who are causing most of the problems is right,” said Steinberg. “If (the stipend) is for completing a GED, if it’s for participating in workforce training, I’ll stand up night and day to defend that.”

Sanchez, the assistant city manager, told community members at the July meeting that some on the council want to wait until new police chief Daniel Hahn is sworn in on Aug. 11 before making a final decision on whether to move forward.

Hahn said he hasn’t had time to look into the details of Advance Peace yet, but he’s “open to any idea that is a permanent, long-term strategy that is collaborative.”

The majority of people gathered at Fruitridge Elementary saw promise in Boggan’s plan after what Simmons, the pastor, described as “a plague” of violence this summer.

Sitting in the back of the packed classroom, Arnold “DayDay” Butler was among those who thought Advance Peace was worth a try.

Butler was a notorious gangster who sold drugs in north Sacramento until police finally caught up with him in 2003. He just got out of prison a few months ago and came to Boggan’s community meeting in south Sacramento because he “wants to stop the violence” he once helped lionize.

Butler said Boggan is right that gangsters can change, and right about needing guys like him to reach the younger shooters.

“They don’t hear nothing nobody want to say. The only reason they listen to me is because they know my name,” said Butler. “I’m going to work with him. I think the program will work.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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