A city that pays criminals to behave
RICHMOND, Calif. – Even by the grim standards of this city, Kamari Ridgle grew up fast and hard.
A drug dealer at age 12 and jailed for carrying an assault rifle to school at 13, Ridgle says he was “one of the people out there doing most of the shootings” back in 2010, when this industrial city of 100,000 was one of the most violent in America and gunplay between warring neighborhoods claimed dozens of lives.
In May that year, Ridgle’s lifestyle caught up with him.
“I got shot on Fifth and Silver 22 times,” said Ridgle, now 19.
His own cousin had set him up to be killed. The attack by some cross-town rivals in broad daylight left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“I think one of the hardest things for me was to let it go,” said Ridgle, seated in his wheelchair. “If I was shot and I was able to walk … I’d probably be on somebody’s corner, shooting at ‘em.”
But as Ridgle was leaving the hospital after a year of surgery and rehabilitation, he was won over by agents from the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a city program that takes some unusual steps to prevent gun violence: building close relationships with some of Richmond’s most dangerous young men, helping them find jobs and counseling them at City Hall.
But there’s another step that raises some eyebrows: Over an 18-month period, if the men demonstrate better behavior, ONS offers them up to $1,000 a month in cash, plus opportunities to travel beyond Richmond.
While critics insist this amounts to rewarding criminal behavior, backers of the program counter that the strategy has yielded extraordinary results where so many others have failed, and that its lessons can be applied to stem gun violence in other volatile cities.
Program Director Devone Boggan says that when the city hired him in 2007, desperate 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.”
During a meeting with law enforcement, Boggan was stunned to learn that city officials believed 70 percent of the 45 homicides and 200-plus firearm assaults in 2009 were committed by just 17 people.
He had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Wow, if we can wrap our arms around that and just engage the 17 people in a different way, that could have a significant impact on the narrative of what’s really going on in the city of Richmond.”
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. Boggan said four politely refused, flashing guns under their belts and announcing that city police would have to earn their paychecks.
The rest agreed to join.
Less stick, more carrot
To qualify for the stipend, ONS fellows must draw up a “life map,” setting goals for the future. After six months in the program, they can receive up to $1,000 a month if they prove they are working toward those goals. If they start slipping back to bad behavior, they get nothing.
While a chance to make some extra money might grab a young offender’s attention, Boggan insists the tough love shown by his staff – many of them ex-convicts from Richmond’s streets – keeps them coming back.
“I think these young men are literally dying for positive, healthy relationships. They are dying as a result of despair and a lack of hope, and what these relationships do – what this agency is all about – is dealing and delivering large doses of hope,” Boggan said. “Our theory of change is simple: I want them to desire to live.”
The numbers seem to back him up. Since ONS’ launch seven years ago, Richmond has experienced a two-thirds drop in homicides. Last year, there were 16 murders, the lowest total since 1980.
Is the ONS responsible?
“We are helping to create the conditions for their success,” Boggan said. “But [these young men] are ultimately responsible.” He added: “Our job is to create an environment where these men stop shooting.”
Boggan is proud of the fact that some of the felons in his 18-month program have gone on to attend four-year colleges. However, his real metric for success is more stark: Of the 68 at-risk males who have entered the program, 64 are still alive. These men were “some of the most lethal young men walking the streets of Richmond,” he adds.
Based on these successes, Boggan is confident that that Richmond is on its way to eliminating gun violence entirely. “We wouldn’t be where we are today or six years ago if we didn’t believe that,” he said.
Richmond officials and criminal experts say that multiple factors have helped reduce the city’s gun violence. In recent years, changing demographics and lower unemployment have contributed to a drop in serious crime in cities across California.
But they agree that incentive-based outreach has achieved what decades of heavy-handed law enforcement did not.
“This culture is fixated on punishment and control as the way in which we deal with crime and other problems. It’s essentially a military solution,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, adding that the city’s high crime rates, historically, are rooted in severe poverty, isolation and dim prospects for growth. “The research has been clear that doesn’t work very well.”
Krisberg applauds the city for pursuing approaches that “emphasize positive incentives for people” and gives them opportunities to get out of poverty.
Fists, not guns
Allwyn Brown, Richmond’s deputy chief of police, credits better police staffing and community engagement with overcoming a once-hostile relationship between residents and law enforcement.
Still, the 30-year veteran says unconventional outreach programs like the ONS are part of the full-court press that has made Richmond safer, and he makes no secret of the latitude that the program’s agents are given to do their work.
In October 2011, two rival groups showed up at the ONS office in City Hall at the same time. A brawl broke out behind closed doors, and police said ONS employees refused to cooperate. No charges were filed.
The incident gave fuel to ONS opponents who contend the agency has not been transparent enough about its work, or clear about its metrics for success.
“I mean, how can Mr. Boggan let that happen?” said Courtland “Corky” Boozé, a city councilman and vocal critic of the ONS. “You mean to tell me he doesn’t have enough control of the people that are most likely to shoot and fight – in their office?
“I need to see some success stories [of fellows] that are productive citizens in the community. That’s all I’m asking. Show me where they work and show me a check stub.”
Boggan said Booze is missing the point about the brawl: Instead of pulling guns, two groups that were locked in a blood feud chose to use their fists.
He also rejects the idea that employment is the right benchmark to assess the program.
“We have fellows who have jobs and they shoot people,” he said. “Our job is to create an environment where these men stop shooting.”
Road trip with a rival
Rohnell Robinson is on probation after serving time for attempted murder. As an ONS fellow, he now works as a custodian at City Hall, earning $13 an hour. For a so-called former shot-caller who used to make big money selling drugs, a steady job can be a comedown.
“There have been times I thought about going back, quite a few times,” Robinson said. “But nah, it’s not worth the pain and suffering you put your family in, and yourself through.”
He says his situation is made more difficult by the strict terms of his probation. Robinson is forbidden from returning to his home neighborhood where authorities believe he could easily get back into trouble. He now has to navigate areas controlled by hostile groups.
“Basically, like, I’m still in jail out of jail because they are limiting me where I can go,” Robinson said.
But ONS offers some fellows the chance to see the world outside Richmond. With support from private donors, fellows have ventured as far as New York, Dubai and Cape Town.
There’s a catch, however: To take part, fellows must agree to travel with a rival.
Last month, Robinson, a native of Central Richmond, took a daytrip up the Northern California coast with Rasheed Shepherd, who hails from the rival South Side. Before the two young men joined ONS, they might have drawn guns in the street.
“It’s like gladiators,” Robinson said. “Try to take each other out and be the king.”
But in their travels beyond Richmond’s rival territories, that battle no longer mattered.
“We got together and it was like we were folks – like we were partners,” Robinson said. “It was cool. We were chilling in the room together.”
The two also learned that they have more in common than not.
“We’re all men,” Shepherd said. “Most men like the same things, basically: women, sports, having fun and being able to enjoy themselves.”
“I think these young men are literally dying for positive, healthy relationships. They are dying as a result of despair and a lack of hope, and what these relationships do – what this agency is all about – is dealing and delivering large doses of hope … I want them to desire to live.”
Sam Vaughn, a popular ONS agent who spent seven years in San Quentin State Prison and accompanied Robinson and Shepherd on their trip, said the program tries to open up these young men to the world beyond the violent microcosm they’ve known all their lives.
“Everything has to offer the good, the bad and the ugly,” Vaughn said. “We just let them experience it, with more options to choose from. They can start using some critical thinking skills instead of just being a robot and doing what they think they are supposed to.”
Robinson and Shepherd stop short of calling themselves friends, but say that their shared experiences – on this trip, riding horses and tasting oysters for the first time – has helped build a rapport that has eased tensions and will leave a residual impact on some young men who look up to them.
“We’re associates, and we’re cool,” Robinson said. “It’s a different type of understanding between me and him.”
Some experts are hopeful that ONS could be a model for other cities. Richmond understands that “violence is not just evil acts by evil people,” said Krisberg, the criminologist. “There is a culture of violence that descends on a community and the only way to really bring the rates down is if you change that culture.”
Four years after linking up with the ONS, Ridgle has started mentoring youth in North Richmond, one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in the Bay Area. He remains very honest about his past. He recounted one night when he and his friend spotted a guy from another part of Richmond.
“And I told my boy, I was like, ‘Tonight going to be the night he die,’” he remembered. “We went and got a gun. We seen him walking and then I just walked up on him and shot at him. Then, he ran.”
Luckily for both, Ridgle missed.
But now when those old urges arise, he says relationships he’s built with ONS staff help keep him in line.
“Today, I’m way different than the guy I was, not the hothead ready to kill a person for nothing. I’m in college,” he said.
He wants to become a businessman and see more of the world, applying some of the same raw instincts he honed on the streets.
“I’ve got a business mindset the streets taught me … Life is bigger than Richmond. But you got to make life that big, you know?”