Richmond holds the unfortunate title of one of California’s most dangerous cities. This is a city where a Sunday church services was once interrupted by retaliatory shootings, and a 16-year-old gang raped at a high school dance. Bullet holes dot houses beside the railroad tracks dividing the city into two neighborhoods that treat each other like warring factions.
But there is a hope for Richmond, and the unlikely source is an organization calling itself the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). Its members are devoted to ending the drive-bys and other shootings plaguing the town, one step at a time.
“We are here at risk,” Kevin Muccular of the ONS — official title, Neighborhood Change Agent — told The Nation. “Every day we are at risk.”
Members of the ONS don’t flood crime-prone neighborhoods with advanced equipment, like riot gear and armored vehicles, as many police departments are doing in other inner-city areas. Instead, they seek out at-risk youths and attempt to steer them in the right direction by offering them mentorship and financial support.
And it’s working.
“They need structure,” Muccular said. “They love someone to tell them, ‘look, you are not going to do that. You are better than that.'”
The city of 100,000 residents, the majority of them minorities, has been known for its progressive politics as much as its skyrocketing crime rate. To demonstrate, the city’s 2009 homicide rate was about nine times higher than the state or national averages for the year.
The ONS began in 2006 as an effort to combat the rising homicide rates, as residents and community leaders started camping out in city parks to establish peace in the city themselves. The city council then recruited DeVone Boggan, the progressive CEO of Oakland non-profit encouraging mentorship programs for young men of color, who became the neighborhood safety director of ONS.
Outreach began in spring of 2008, with a staff of four part-timers, which soon grew to seven — all of them Richmond natives, most of them ex-convicts. They focused on calming people down before the gunfire could start.
Unfortunately, his $600,000 budget was spread thin covering the whole city, and crime rates reached a new high in 2009. Boggan discovered most of the city’s shootings could be traced back to only 17 young men. He decided to focus all the ONS’s efforts on that small group.
Using advice from several experts, Boggan recruited 21 young men to join the ONS as part of the Operation Peacekeeper Fellowship in 2010. The ONS, now with a budget of $1.5 million, is on its third fellowship program. The classes offer a process of “mainstreaming,” which Boggan explains as a way to connect pupils to new social networks and alternative ways of survival.
As the Nation describes the process:
The city agency… steps in where other social services have failed, connecting the most hard to reach and destructive young men to education, job training, counseling and offering a small wage to sustain them in making these changes.
Tensions often run high between the ONS and Richmond police, whose officers, Boggan said, see his program as little more than “hugs for thugs.” They are often frustrated that the organization takes in men wanted for murder.
“The fact of the matter is… most suspected firearm offenders are walking our streets today,” Boggan said. “What would you rather do, leave them alone or isolated, depressed or enraged, where they are doing what they already know? Or try something different in changing their mindset and therefore changing a culture and therefore changing a community?”
Although their techniques might be disparaged, homicide rates have plummeted in Richmond since the fellowship program began in 2010. Only three years after the record high of 47 murders in 2009, only 18 people were murdered in 2012. It’s difficult to evaluate how much of the reduction is due to the ONS, but the anecdotal evidence is there.