Richmond in California has consistently ranked in the USA’s top ten cities for violent crime. Back in 2006, the city was desperate for a solution. A new police chief was brought in to sort out the mess, but rather than the usual heavy-handed tactics, he decided to do something fresh, radical…and controversial.
The new chief set up a program called the Office of Neighborhood Safety, or ONS. He hired a man called Devone Boggart to run the operation, which aimed to prevent gun violence through mentoring, counselling, career advice, emotional support- and cold, hard cash. Richmond’s most violent men are offered up to $1000 per month in exchange for good behaviour- and while this was a highly controversial move, the statistics speak for themselves: the ONS program has an 80% success rate.
Boggart says when he took the job as program leader, drastic times called for drastic measures. “Almost every day someone was being shot and there was multiple gunfire every day,” Boggan said. “I mean it was literally popping. It was on fire, no question about that.” He explained recently in a Radio Diaries interview where the idea for this compassionate approach to gun crime came from. Boggart had been told that only 17 people in the city were responsible for a massive 70% of all violent crime- that’s 45 homicides and 200+ firearm assaults. “I was like, wow. We can wrap our arms around that if I can just engage the 17 people in a different way,” Boggart recalls.
With help from private donors, he established a mentorship program that initially reached out to 24 young men judged most likely to commit gun violence. All were invited to city hall for a meeting, where Boggart explained that he couldn’t make Richmond safe without their help. At the end, he gave each man an envelope containing $1000. It was a bribe for good behavior, with promises of help to turn their lives around and more payments in future for those who stayed on the program.
Boggart employed “change agents” to mentor the young men. Some of them were ex-offenders themselves and were able to build relationships with the young men. One change agent named Sam told Radio Diaries that the first step to changing your life is changing your mind.
“Changing your mind is the easiest thing in the world,” he says. “I believe I can be a different man, I believe I can be a success, I believe I can stop using drugs, I believe I can be a good father, I believe I can get a job.” He goes on: “Believing all these things is fantastic, but if I don’t have the tools and the mechanisms to do something different, I revert back to my old ways.” He likens this to becoming a vegetarian and finding no vegetables to eat: “I’m back on meat within a week for sure.” Sam checks in on his guys every day, helping them write life maps, think about jobs, supporting them through personal problems and whatever else they may need to take the moral path. “They are dying for a positive relationship,” Sam says. He describes ONS’s mission as “delivering large doses of hope”, and adds: “I want them to desire to live.”
Boggan is proud of the fact that some of the men in his 18-month program have gone on to attend college; Kamari Ridgle is one of them. He was shot 22 times after his own cousin set him up to die. Ridgle ended up in a wheelchair, which could have been his saving grace: he admits that if he had come out of the hospital walking, he’d have taken revenge and would probably be dead by now. But ONS helped him see that there is an alternative future, and now Ridgle is in college: “Today, I’m way different than the guy I was, not the hothead ready to kill a person for nothing,” he explains. Ridgle dreams of travel, and becoming a successful entrepreneur. “I’ve got a business mindset the streets taught me,” he says. “Life is bigger than Richmond. But you got to make life that big, you know?”
Another success story is Devandre Wooder, a 25 year old man who was also one of Richmond’s most wanted. With help, Wooder stopped shooting guns and selling drugs, and he was even invited to Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington in 2011 to represent the ONS program. Wooder was determined to get a job at a nearby Chevron plant, but being a convicted felon, he was turned down. The ONS program helped Wooder move through these obstacles, giving him positive references and helping him write an essay to explain his chequered past and set out his aims for the future. Wooder had to wait two years, but eventually he was accepted on to a training program at the plant. Listening to Wooder speaking on the Radio Diaries program, you get the impression that a real job was genuinely all he ever wanted- like many others on the program. he just had no clue how to get there without some much-needed support.
The ONS initiative has drawn criticism, though. Understandably, many law-abiding citizens are angry about the cash payments in particular. Why should crime pay? Where’s my money for good behavior? Sam understands this attitude perfectly, but argues that we should focus on results, not methods. “I get it, I do,” he tells Radio Diaries. “But who would you rather have living next door to you? A guy with a college degree who turned his life around or a guy sitting on his porch all day doing push ups?”
It has been proven that heavy-handed approaches to violent crime simply do not work. Whether or not it’s fair bribe criminals for good behavior is a debate worth having, but here’s the bottom line: If we want to live in a safe neighbourhood, we should support incentive-based programs that aim to create real change, not gung-ho programs that aim only to punish. Human beings thrive in loving, supportive environments- and for some of Richmond’s most violent criminals, the ONS program is the first time they have experienced anything close to that. The statistics speak for themselves: there have been no new arrests or charges for any of the men who have taken part in the ONS program since 2006, and homicides in Richmond have dropped to one third of what they were.
Compassion, it seems, really can work miracles.
First published here.