It was early Thursday morning, and news of another killing had just arrived, this one more chilling than the others. There were two bodies. One was a young woman, aged 31. The other was her 7-year-old son. Both had been shot in the head. It wasn’t long before police and onlookers swarmed the West Baltimore street to bear witness to another grim annotation in the city’s skyrocketing murder toll.
“The screams I’m hearing right now as the bodies are removed from the house would rip your heart out,” one reporter wrote on Twitter.
Even in Baltimore, where killing is a distinct part of its urban reality, the weeks since Freddie Gray’s controversial death have been exceptionally grisly. To mark May’s passage was to count bullets and bodies. Around 10 people were shot dead the second week of the month, the most in a week in more than two years. Then it happened again the next week. And again the week after that. In all, 43 people were killed in May — the most in a single month in four decades.
“We see violence as a public health problem,” Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen said. “It’s something that’s contagious, that spreads from person to person, perpetrators to victims. This sounds negative, but just like if this is a disease, there’s a way to treat and prevent it.”
More than 10 years ago, in a city afflicted by the same urban repercussions of economic decline, officials considered this disease and wondered at a treatment. It was June of 2005 in Richmond, Calif., a city of 100,000 residents nestled along the San Francisco Bay. April there had been a particularly violent month, even for a city that one state senator compared to Iraq and others called a “war zone.” Another car shooting had just claimed three more lives. So now the city council wanted to declare a state of emergency in an urban landscape called the nation’s 12th most dangerous.
“We’re living in extreme times that call for extreme measures,” one council member said. Some wanted canine patrols. Others wanted surveillance cameras overlooking drug hot spots. But the city also did something substantially more extreme — and radical — than any of those measures.
The city gave the green light to a law-trained community activist who brought years of experience working with the chronically violent. His name was Devone Boggan. He wears fedoras, was once busted for selling drugs, and speaks of urban violence with such passion he shouts. And he had an idea so unusual — and so promising — that officials today travel from across the country to learn the model. It’s simple, he said. Pay people not to kill.
Actually, the plan was substantially more complex, but to understand what he did — and more importantly, why — he says you first need to understand the underpinnings that gird urban violence. You can’t treat a disease without accounting for the mechanisms that drive it. This dissection of Richmond’s violence occurred in a city-funded report of urban crime around that time. It clocked in 51 pages, tracked how violence in Richmond had changed over the years and provided Boggan the raw data he needed to learn which neighborhoods to target — and how to do it.
“The study looked at who was committing the violence, who was doing the shooting and when,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California-Berkeley. “And it came down to a small number of people. … Violence tends to be concentrated in certain social areas, and most of the people who engage in criminal violence engage people they know, or are related to, and it spreads from generation to generation.”
The report found the homicide rate varied dramatically across the city. Violence was rarely visited upon some neighborhoods, while others were choked by it. Those most likely to get shot in Richmond, the report said, were black males between the ages of 25 and 34. They were clustered in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood or in what it called “Police Beat Three.” Those implicated in many of those crimes were the same actors, and the killing was most often done between 8 p.m. and midnight.
“So Devone says, ‘When it’s only a small number of guys, let’s see if we can approach them and ween them from this activity,” recalled Krisberg, who advised Boggan. “And those guys are influential with people like themselves. The idea was the old carrot and stick thing was not enough. If you can’t stabilize their financial situation, they’ll go back to dealing dope, and drugs is a dangerous business that leads to shootings.”
Boggan opened the public-private Office of Neighborhood Safety at a time of profound violence. It was 2007, and 47 homicides had just rocked the city’s 106,000 residents. He had to work fast. So Boggan first concentrated on bringing on the right people, looking for a very unusual skill set. He wanted his mentors — called violence interrupters — to have street credibility. He wanted them to empathize with their targets. He wanted criminals on his payroll.
“The job description required a background in the history of Richmond, specifically around its firearm crimes,” Boggan said. “These are neighborhood change agents, and all with the exception of one of them has had some criminal history in the city of Richmond.”
Then the office went about the task of identifying the men most likely to kill or get killed. The office plumbed police data, worked neighborhood sources, and bore in mind the contagious nature of violence to finally arrive at a list of 50 names. Then came the hard part: building trust. How would people in the neighborhoods know that these mentors weren’t just police informants?
That question came to a head at Boggan’s office inside Richmond City Hall in 2011. Several program participants, perhaps unsurprisingly, belonged to rival gangs. So on a mid-October day, after the young men arrived at the same time to meet Boggan’s mentors, an argument erupted in the parking lot. Things only got worse once they got inside. A brawl broke out. Someone’s nose got smashed. And the cops showed up. But when they questioned Boggan, he declined to answer. Boggan says the cops threatened him with obstruction of justice, but he never snitched. “This was a pivotal moment, and it took the trust level between us and the guys to another level.”
That scene lent Boggan the credibility he needed to persuade dangerous residents, who were until then skeptical, to join his 18-month program, funded by private dollars and philanthropic donations. The pitch: leave behind violence, develop life skills, get treatment for anger management — and get paid. Participants are eligible to make anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per month, depending on how far they progress on what Boggan calls their “life map.” And if by the time the 18 months are up, and Boggan think they still need more support, they stay in the program for as long as it takes.
The results have been staggering. Sixty-eight men have participated in the program since June of 2010, and 64 are still alive. Fifty-seven haven’t been shot since, and 54 have gone without an additional gun-related charge. Several have either gone back to school or gotten jobs. Those numbers reflected citywide trends. Between 2007’s count of 47 homicides and 2014, when only 11 homicides roiled Richmond, the murder rate has dropped 77 percent. So far this year, Boggan said, only three gang-related homicides have occurred.
“It’s been dramatic and precipitous,” Boggan said. “It’s amazing and it has to do with focusing on those driving violence and recognizing that they have a great deal of power in terms of gun violence in our city and whether it goes up or down.”
It is nonetheless hard to know whether this drop is exclusively borne of Boggan’s program or the result of multiple factors — from a nationwide decline in the murder rate, to a surge in Richmond’s gentrification, to the 2006 arrival of police chief Chris Magnus. Magnus, who called upon his officers to take a more active role in the community, has also been widely credited for helping to reduce the homicide rate.
Either way, California advocates say Boggan’s initiatives may point a way forward for Baltimore, where the murder rate has remained stubbornly consistent over the last decade, even while declines hit other urban centers. Baltimore has already launched a program in some impoverished neighborhoods called Safe Streets, which deploys its own violence interruptors to mollify tempers when violence ignites. City officials estimate the program has helped to reduce homicides in the targeted neighborhoods by half.
But those programs, Wen conceded, are still small. And, perhaps more importantly, no one gets paid for not killing. An element, if Boggan’s models offer any clues, that may be necessary.
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