City Hall fistfight catalyst for debate between Office of Neighborhood Safety and critics

Long-standing rifts between the Office of Neighborhood Safety and its critics have broken open following a fight last week involving youth from rival neighborhoods who had gathered inside City Hall.

Citing Richmond police reports, local newspapers have published accounts of a melee that left City Hall rooms splattered with blood in addition to allegations that a female ONS staffer was caught in a compromising sexual situation in a car three days before.

On Wednesday, spokesmen from the Richmond Police Department and the Contra Costa County Sherriff’s Department  say those reports should not have been released.

“I know that the police report got out, but I don’t know how,” said Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan. “Normally the police report does not get out without being redacted … In this case, before we even had a chance to speak on the issue, the reporter had received a copy of the report.”

The episode has cast a strong light on the increasingly controversial role of the ONS and its tenuous relationship with the police, public and some on the City Council.

ONS was launched in 2007, and includes a staff of community outreach specialists who use community connections and trust to work in high-crime communities, often intervening to quell retaliation after gang-related shootings. ONS agents say that sharing information with police would undercut their credibility, a crucial asset when intervening to reduce violence.

That unconventional role can be a source of tension between the ONS and other agencies, leaders and law enforcement personnel.

“[ONS methods] are unconventional and nontraditional,” said Councilman Tom Butt. “That always provokes some opposition.”

In an interview for an earlier story, DeVone Boggan said heated words were exchanged in the City Hall parking lot when seven young men from two rival groups both showed up to meet with ONS staff members. Tensions escalated. Once the young men were in the ONS suite, a brawl broke out. The unauthorized police report further detailed what happened inside the office, including an account from a responding officer criticizing how ONS staff reacted to the situation directly after the incident.

Gagan said the department has interviewed four police staff, but have not discovered who released the reports. Whoever did is subject to discipline, as releasing such information without permission is in violation of department policy, Gagan said.

Meanwhile, ONS has not cooperated with police in the felony investigation, Gagan said. Their choice is an ethical one, and Gagan said refusing to cooperate with the police on such a matter is not illegal.

“We were concerned initially with the staff’s unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation,” he said. “I think I understand the nature of the outreach does need to show the people that they work with that they’re not going to tell everything to the police.”

One police officer is specifically designated to act as a liason to ONS, Butt said.

“They have to be able to build and maintain the confidence of a lot of people on the fringes of society,” Butt said. “ONS simply can’t be in a position where the people they deal with think that they are going to take their information and give it to police. “

“When all this stuff came down at City Hall you had a conventional police response, and what they should have done is all this stuff should have gone through the liaison officer,” he said. “That’s proper protocol.”

The tension “between police and ONS is just something natural,” Butt said.

“You have police, they are out there to enforce the law, and you’ve got this ONS that has a whole different mission and to do it effectively they have to have different kinds of people,” he said.

Police Chief Chris Magnus declined to comment on the issue, writing in an email that Gagan “adequately represents where our agency stands on this incident and our view of relations overall with the Office of Neighborhood Safety.”

Reactions to the incident from City Council have been varied — a local newspaper reported that Councilman Corky Booze called for Boggan’s immediate removal. He also said that ONS staff made an irresponsible choice as city employees by refusing to cooperate with the police.

“Corky can’t stand DeVone, just can’t stand him, and he is going to continue to be on his case,” said Butt. “There is always going to be tension around that.”

City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a supporter of ONS, said some opposed Boggan’s initial appointment as director while others are critical about the allocation of funding or have personal issues with how the group works.

“There is a contingent of people that have been critical of DeVone even when he has done wonderful things,” Ritterman said. “But I have not heard any really significant, substantive criticism that has stood up to scrutiny.”

Ritterman said he thinks people are using this situation as a platform to voice their personal opinions.

“I think the press is all over this, but I think there’s a much bigger story,” he said. “I think everybody ought to calm down and not get so excited about this … and, lets be serious, [violence] is a national problem and there’s a mega force at play.”

More than a dozen people spoke in support of ONS during last night’s City Council meeting. Among them were individuals from ONS staff outreach, CCISCO and Safe Return in addition to unaffiliated Richmond residents who lost family members to gun violence.

“We’re engaging these young people,” said Jeff Rutland, a volunteer with Safe Return. “We have the news here for a fistfight that happened Friday … This is what we’re reduced to.”

The supporters drew cheers and applause from members of the crowd. A video camera filmed the public comments, leaving soon after its conclusion.

Later in the evening, the City Council approved ONS and Safe Return Project service contracts with the CalGRIP IV Grant.

ONS and the Police Department have different approaches to the same goals, Gagan said, and this specific instance is a symptom of a need for more collaboration.

“Talking to reporters in the media or talking to City Council is not the way that working relationships are improved,” Gagan said.

Gagan declined to comment on allegations that a female ONS staff member engaged in sexual acts in a city car and the city’s Human Resource department was unable to answer whether any staff member was on administrative leave.

The police are still investigating what happened at City Hall on Friday and have not identified any of the seven participants in the fight, although Gagan said authorities will review CCTV video footage.

Butt noted that the individual attacked declined to press charges.

“…So if you don’t have a victim what are you investigating?” he said.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said officials will evaluate the building’s security, as is done whenever there’s any incident of workplace violence.

“For example, there was a suggestion that ONS have the ability to know who’s in their office door before they open it,” Lindsay said. “The same thing you would have in their own home, a way to identify who’s there.”

Other possible changes would be tightening up entrance security and reducing public entryways from two to one. From the program perspective, Lindsay said they will “be evaluating anything that was related to that incident,” which includes preventing rival groups from occupying the same space and long term changes to prevent antagonism between groups of young men.

Butt said he expected Lindsay to issue a written statement today to clarify the issue and the city’s reaction.

Contributions by: Robert Rogers

3 Comments

  1. Carole Johnson

    I have a serious issue with the criticism directed at Devone Boggan. None of us is perfect and his methods are definitely unconventional. But whatever people in Richmond were doing before the ONS came along was NOT WORKING. As far as those who are so quick to criticize Boggan and the ONS are concerned, what have they done in DIRECT AND EFFECTIVE response to stopping the violence in Richmond? I say, let the ONS keep doing what they need to do to keep the peace. One setback should not be the end of their numerous positive achievements.

    • Don Gosney

      Well, to start with I haven’t gone to City Hall to get in any fights recently. Nor have I sold any drugs or shot at anybody recently.

      And instead of stonewalling the local police department, I’ve actually filed thorough and detailed police reports when I saw a crime.

      Isn’t that a step in the right direction?

  2. Joe Ehrlich

    Um, which “numerous positive achievements” could you possibly be referring to?

    Examples of even just a few might be a good start. I am not holding my breath…

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