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In Sacramento, trying to stop a killing before it happens

Marcus McGhee, right, hangs out with John Huston in the recording studio at Timeless Music Productions in Sacramento on Oct. 20. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
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SACRAMENTO — The sun was setting over the Mack Road Valley Hi Community Center as Marcus McGhee, 43, leaned heavily against the building’s front handrail, listening intently to the excited young voice on the other end of the phone.

The teenager told McGhee that he had just had a gun pulled on him at the train station. The teen knew these guys; he’d gotten into a fight with them once before. This time, they threatened to shoot him and then walked away.

“So how you want to handle it?” McGhee calmly responded, waiting as the young man thought things through.

“I just want to be cool,” the teen finally replied.

McGhee exhaled as he hung up. Another potential shooting avoided, at least for now.

In many American cities, police believe that most homicide and other violent crime is committed by just a handful of people already known to law enforcement: young men, frequently black and Hispanic, who, like the teen McGhee was speaking with, are involved in street gangs.

In Sacramento, gang-related violence accounts for more than a quarter of the city’s 30 to 40 annual homicides, according to police. Because the violence is typically retaliatory and witnesses refuse to cooperate, police often struggle to solve such killings, leading to the next round of retaliation.

So, city officials are flipping the script: intervening directly with young men who are closest to the violence — including known shooters — before they either pull the trigger or become a victim themselves.

The strategy is part of a program called Advance Peace, which offers financial incentives to the young men it targets if they stay out of trouble, a relatively radical approach to reducing gang violence. Police consider such violence a major factor in homicides nationwide and say those killings can be among the most difficult to solve.

Since 2007, more than half of the 52,000 homicides in 55 large cities have led to no arrest, according to an ongoing examination by The Washington Post. At least 38 cities have lower homicide arrest rates now than a decade ago. The failure to close cases leaves killers on the streets and fuels a cycle of retaliatory violence.

Explore Sacramento in The Post’s homicide database

Police in Sacramento have done a better job at solving murder than many of their major city counterparts — making arrests in nearly 65 percent of homicides since 2007, including 53 percent of killings that were considered gang-related, The Post found.

But even as the city’s arrest rates have remained high, Sacramento saw a rise in gun violence over the past few years, which officials attribute in large part to street gangs.

In Sacramento, the normal enforcement and outreach strategies to fight the gang violence did not work: Arresting one shooter seemed to just clear the way for the next one.

So Sacramento contracted with Advance Peace, a program in which mentors like McGhee — themselves previously imprisoned — identify vulnerable young men and help them develop a “life map” of short- and long-term goals while wrapping them in social services. Mentors help the young men, or “fellows,” secure driver’s licenses and jobs, guide them to stable housing or drug treatment as needed, and mediate arguments and conflicts that could otherwise turn deadly.

After six months, if a participant has made sufficient progress toward his goals, he becomes eligible for a stipend of up to $1,000 a month. Officials have enrolled 39 young men in Sacramento so far.

Advocates consider it an innovative program that funnels resources and attention to young men otherwise unlikely to have access to city services. But the financial incentive, which officials note is a relatively small part of their program, has fueled its opposition.

“It’s a hard pill for people to swallow, especially law enforcement,” said Khaalid Muttaqi, director of Sacramento’s Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force. “Fox News did a story that, in essence, said the city of Sacramento approves a program to ‘bribe’ gangbangers to stop shooting each other. That didn’t go over too good.”

Critics have asked why these young men, who police already believe have probably committed violent crime, deserve the investment.

DeVone Boggan, who founded the program in nearby Richmond, Calif., said the cost of not intervening is far greater.

“In most American cities, a homicide costs the city about a million dollars, easily,” Boggan said. “That’s important when you start to think about the cost of this type of interruption approach versus the cost each unprevented shooting has on a city.”

'None of them had been arrested'

A wave of violence in Richmond, about 75 miles southwest of Sacramento, sparked the creation of Advance Peace.

In 2007, Boggan was hired to run the city’s newly created Office of Neighborhood Safety. At the time, the 100,000-person city on the east side of the San Francisco Bay had one of the highest murder rates in the country.

A small group of people were believed to be behind the violence: In 2010, Richmond police identified 28 young men who they suspected were responsible for 70 percent of the previous year’s gun violence.

“All 28 of them were walking our streets,” Boggan recalls. “None of them had been arrested.

While the city had spent many years and dollars attempting to steer young people away from violence, Boggan said he realized that little was being done to reach the young men already believed to have been involved in shootings.

“These are the most lethal young men, the serial shooters,” Boggan said. “We began to focus intensive developmental attention on those guys.”

The model he came up with built on the ideology of programs such as Operation Ceasefire, the violence-reduction program developed in Boston in the 1990s that has since expanded to other cities. The underlying concept is to treat violence as a public health crisis and to marshal social services and government attention to the handful of violent offenders in a city.

But Operation Ceasefire and similar programs often rely heavily on faith communities and police officials for leadership. Boggan’s plan was to limit police involvement and have former offenders run the program.

Boggan’s office identified the men to focus on and then began to barrage them with services. The program would offer mentoring and job placement and help the men set goals. If one was struggling with a drug addiction, Boggan would help link him with treatment. If he needed a steady job, Boggan’s office would set it up.

As an incentive to stick with the program, Boggan decided that anyone who made enough progress with his goals would become eligible for a cash stipend of up to $1,000 a month. (Most, Boggan noted, ended up with a few hundred dollars.) If they succeeded, fellows would be taken on “enrichment” trips, first out of the city and later abroad.

The proposal raised eyebrows. Some police officials balked at the idea of providing some suspected shooters with social services and counseling, not handcuffs. And some community leaders questioned whether the program’s targets were reachable at all.

“The biggest pushback, first and foremost, was: Why aren’t these guys in jail?” Boggan recalls.

“I just took it as a practical matter. They’re not in jail,” he said. “Perhaps they don’t deserve all of this investment, but if this strategy is reducing the gun violence in their respective communities, don’t the communities deserve that?”

Some of the deepest skepticism came from the program’s targets.

Rasheed Shepherd said that he remembers showing up for the program’s introductory meeting at Richmond City Hall, sitting down in a conference room overflowing with members of rivaling neighborhood crews. Shepherd, who was then 18, wondered if it was a setup, an attempt by police to lure him and the other men to incriminate themselves.

Shepherd had grown up in a rough neighborhood in South Richmond, which meant he’d spent plenty of time hanging out in streets where drugs and violence were common. He also had his first child on the way.

Seated at the front of the room, Boggan insisted it wasn’t a trap. Set goals, he urged Shepherd. Let his assigned mentors check in on him, and see what happens. As Shepherd considered what he wanted for his own son, he said he realized that Boggan was offering a life raft. He had never been directly involved in a shooting, he said, but he knew that it was only a matter of time.

“You can only run around the streets for so long before it catches up to you, right?” Shepherd said.

The program provided Shepherd with two mentors. Among his goals were to get a GED, find steady employment and be financially stable by the time his son was born. The mentors suggested he also work on conflict management and interpersonal skills.

Shepherd started in earnest, quickly finishing the high school courses he needed for a degree and securing a job as a security guard. He took his first-ever airplane flights traveling with other program participants to Washington, D.C., and South Africa.

When violence struck close to home — when friends or neighbors were shot — it seemed the Advance Peace staff found out almost as quickly as Shepherd did and would contact him before he could do anything he would regret, he said.

“I could ignore their calls all I wanted; they knew someone who knew where I was,” Shepherd recalls.

Those were the times he was tempted to let the anger take over and exact revenge.

His mentors would calmly ask how he was feeling, what he was thinking of doing, and if it was worth it. For years, Shepherd hadn’t had anything to lose, but now, having built a life through the program, he did.

How many times did those conversations stop him from doing something violent?

“I can’t even count,” said Shepherd, now 26.

Shepherd was not the only success: A review conducted in 2015 by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that 64 out of 68 program participants in Richmond were still alive, 57 had not suffered a gun-related injury, and 54 had not been arrested or charged for gun-related activity since becoming fellows.

Boggan began to field calls from major philanthropies who wanted to expand the program to other cities. They agreed to pilot an expansion. Now they needed the right place.

A spike in the violence

By 2016, Sacramento was grappling with what local officials considered a crisis: Gun homicides had increased more than 50 percent, year over year. And shootings were up 47 percent. Almost all of the violence, officials believed, was being driven by a handful of young men who they thus far had been unable to stop.

Many of these men belonged to street gangs. In some cases, they were offshoots of the notorious Bloods and Crips, but most often were small neighborhood crews engaged in petty disputes.

Often these crews doubled as rap groups, many inspired by the success of Timothy “Mozzy” Patterson, a Sacramento rapper who found national acclaim in recent years rhyming about the trauma of shootings and street life. The crews taunted one another in music videos posted to YouTube.

“There are these rap groups who make a video and talk about this other rap group, and next thing you know, they’re YouTube sensations rapping against each other, and all of a sudden it leads to a shooting,” said Sgt. Aaron Wallace of the Sacramento Police Department’s gang enforcement unit.

“It’s all through social media.”

In 2016, the city invited Boggan to be the keynote speaker at the annual Violence Reduction Summit. In the audience was Muttaqi, who since 2011 had run Sacramento’s gang prevention and intervention task force.

He listened intently as Boggan described Advance Peace’s success in Richmond.

Muttaqi thought: Why not try the program in Sacramento?

He anticipated it might be a hard sell. Some officials seemed to be in denial about the gang problems. But more traditional efforts, such as police athletic leagues and school intervention programs, were not working.

“When it comes to working with the younger kids, everyone is on board,” Muttaqi said. “But when it comes to the harder grind, working with the guys already in the gangs, some people have trouble accepting it.”

But with the spike in violence, the gang task force voted to give it a try, setting things in motion. In August 2017, the City Council voted unanimously to contract with Advance Peace. The vote came just days after a shooting in Meadowview Park that left one dead and four injured.

Under the deal, the city would provide about $1.5 million over three years from its gang task force funding, covering about half of the program’s total cost. The city’s funding would cover the cost of program staff, office space and administration, while participant stipends would come from Advance Peace’s philanthropic funding.

A few days later, a firestorm erupted. An article on the Fox News website inaccurately declared that city officials had approved “$1.5 million in cash stipends to gang members . . . from the city’s general fund.”

Other critics piled on.

“This program subsidizes criminality,” declared a writer for the website RedState. On the site Infowars, a writer said the program would “Take money from peaceful tax paying citizens and redistribute that money to the gang bangers who are killing them.”

The national attention stirred local opposition. While the Sacramento police chief supported the program, other prominent local law enforcement officials did not.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said in a statement that she had “serious concerns” about the program, which she described as “apparently based upon the payment of money to high-risk individuals in exchange for a promise not to engage in” violence.

John McGinness, who was the county sheriff from 2006 to 2010, said in a local television interview that the program was a “flawed concept.”

“You can’t continue to pay them forever,” McGinness said. “So what happens when that dynamic changes?”

But eventually, the controversy subsided. After a few landlords balked at housing the program and its fellows, city officials found office space for it downtown. While some officers questioned how it would be implemented, the city’s police chief backed the program. Police and neighborhood leaders helped identify dozens of young men known to be gang-affiliated who would possibly be receptive.

The city hired Julius Thibodeaux, a former drug dealer and gang member who had served 23 years in prison for attempted murder, as its program manager.

Thibodeaux, whose imposing figure is betrayed by his soft, deliberate speaking style, said he first heard of Advance Peace shortly after getting out of prison in 2016 — one of his nephews, Shepherd, had completed the program in Richmond. At Shepherd’s suggestion, Thibodeaux began working as a mentor for the Richmond program and later applied to run the Sacramento pilot.

“You could say it’s paying criminals to stop shooting, which gives off clearly a negative impression,” Thibodeaux said. “Or you can talk about investing in youngsters who have been deemed unreachable . . . and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Thibodeaux hired a half-dozen mentors, and by July had persuaded 39 young men to join the program. It’s been up and running only a few months, but he hopes it will eventually include 50 young men and 25 fellows younger than 18.

“These [mentors] were all handpicked and hired because of their ties to the community and, particularly, the population we’re targeting,” Thibodeaux said.

Dealer turned mentor

Advance Peace mentor Marcus McGhee is well known in Sacramento’s rougher neighborhoods: Before getting arrested in a federal investigation, he was a prominent drug dealer. Now, he’s a regular in the community center and at shooting scenes.

One recent week, he fielded an early-morning call about a shooting, prompting a 5:30 a.m. trip to the scene. Every morning, McGhee conducted check-ins with his eight or so fellows by phone, quizzing them on the progress they’d made on their life map. Is that housing paperwork finished? Is that job application turned in?

“Because of my past, it’s the reason why I’m able to do this work,” said McGhee, who took a plea deal and spent more than eight years in prison. “I use that to put myself in the position to get them to listen.”

He spends afternoons cruising his gray Lexus up and down the streets of Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood. He keeps an eye out for any of his fellows hanging out on the corners and takes their calls, often trying to defuse volatile situations.

Even now, just after dark on a Saturday, McGhee is working.

McGhee sunk into the black leather couch at Timeless Music Productions, a small music studio north of downtown. His eyes slid closed as the beat began and, in the soundproofed room a few feet away, a young man stepped to the microphone.

McGhee had been an aspiring rapper himself before his arrest and still jumps behind the microphone now and then. Primarily, though, McGhee — known as M-A-K — helps manage a small record label, Mack Block Ent, which he said helps him further connect with the young men he monitors, many of whom have musical aspirations.

In the booth tonight is John Huston, 24, who records under the name “John Doe,” and who grew up in some of the same neighborhoods as McGhee.

Huston fantasized about getting out of Sacramento by enlisting in the military. But as a teen, after being shot at several times, Huston said he got a gun, illegally, for protection. Later, police caught him with it, leading to a felony conviction that ended his military escape plan.

“Some people, a lot of people, don’t want to live this life,” Huston said. “But they’re stuck in it.”

Huston said he didn’t have much going for him before meeting McGhee. He didn’t have a phone or a car, or even a driver’s license. But since childhood he’d kept journals of poems, which soon became rap verses. A friend of a friend introduced him to McGhee, who invited him to the studio and liked what he heard.

Many of his songs draw from his childhood journals, with a focus on the trauma the frequent shootings inflicted on the kids who grow up in neighborhoods.

“I could talk about having hecka money, and I’d be lying,” Huston said with a laugh. “I choose to talk about what I’ve been through, and the struggles, and I feel like a lot of people will relate to that.”

Huston isn’t formally enrolled in Advance Peace, but he is the type of young man whom McGhee and the other mentors have been instructed to build relationships with. The two have put together a life map for Huston, including a plan for writing and releasing music. He had to do the paperwork to get a driver's license and he had to show up for job interviews. Already, Huston said, his life is being transformed.

“As soon as I’m up in the morning, my whole day is set up,” said Huston, who noted that in the past few months he has released eight songs, as well as his first music video. “He’s basically put me on a program where I don’t have time to be in the streets.”

Kimbriell Kelly and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

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