City agency looks to stop violence before it starts
on November 12, 2009
Devone Boggan doesn’t see his role as director of a city agency as simply a job.
His mission, reducing the number of people who fall victim to deadly violence in Richmond, is more profound.
“We have gunfire virtually every day in this city,” Boggan said, straining forward in his seat at his 37th Street office. “It is shameful, to say the least, [that] this kind of violence continues here.”
Boggan, 42, has been director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety since the agency started in October 2007. The City Council created the office and provided funding in response to skyrocketing levels of gun violence in the middle of the decade, Boggan said.
Richmond’s program is modeled after similar initiatives in recent decades that have demonstrated success in slowing urban crime.
“This street outreach strategy is a public health approach to reducing shootings and killings modeled after Boston and Chicago’s ‘Ceasefire’ work and which other cities in the U.S. have implemented,” Boggan said.
Boggan mentioned that he lost his brother to gun violence two years ago in his home state of Michigan. Then he recited grim numbers. He said 684 homicides were recorded in Richmond from 1986-2005, an average of about 34 per year. This year, 42 people have been slain in the city as of Oct. 25, a significant increase over the 27 killed in all of 2008.
Boggan is one of a staff of six. His boots on the ground are his four neighborhood “change agents,” three men and one woman long familiar with the neighborhoods in which they work. Their first role is to connect with people who have been directly touched by gun violence.
The change agents are dispatched to the scene of every killing in the city, where they try to intervene and console. Violence begets more violence, Boggan said, and he hopes contacting people whose loved ones have been killed or wounded can head off retaliation. The change agents talk to people about what to do next, and link them with outside resources, including grief counselors and funeral costs. They often provide a listening ear during an emotional time, Boggan said.
In Boston, a similar program, “Operation Ceasefire,” was implemented in 1996, and featured multifaceted approaches to violence prevention and intervention in specific locations.
In 1990, 73 people under the age of 24 were killed in Boston, according to a U.S. Department of Justice research report, and an average of 44 per year were killed from 1991-1995.
In 1996-7, the number dropped to about 20 per year.
Boggan said the variables are too numerous in any city to attribute crime reduction to one program, but that the numbers in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere suggest that violence intervention teams have an effect.
When they aren’t responding to specific incidents, department staff write grant proposals, look to strike partnerships with local institutions, and do outreach work in the hardest hit communities in an effort to link residents with services and resources that often go unused, Boggan said. They also run a neighborhood football league for preteens.
The department received $830,000 in city funds this year, and with grants and private funding has an overall budget of about $1.1 million, Boggan said.
During the program’s first full year, homicides in the city plummeted from 47 in 2007 to 27 in 2009. More precisely, Boggan said, 28 homicides in 2007 occurred in the high-crime central policing district of the city, which contains the notorious “Iron Triangle.” Only five homicides occurred in the central district in 2008, with the safety office focusing most of its time and energy on residents in those neighborhoods, Boggan said.
This year the killings are back up, but Boggan’s said that fact does not call into question his agency’s effectiveness.
“We didn’t take responsibility for the reduction in homicides 2008, and we can’t take blame for the rise this year,” Boggan said. “We are an agency with four agents in a city of more than 100,000 people, and we are under pressure to expand our coverage without resources.”
Joe McCoy, 39, is one of the agency’s neighborhood change agents. He’s a lifelong resident of North Richmond, with extensive connections in the community. He said the agency’s work is crucial to fostering local cooperation with the city to reduce crime.
“These are communities that have been lied to and promised to by politicians and leaders for years,” McCoy said. “We have to rebuild trust.”
Boggan said his agency has much work to do, including leveraging the city’s resources with additional funding sources such as The California Endowment and developing a local plan for re-entry of paroled residents.
“Our work helps us as a city become more competitive for federal dollars and state dollars,” Boggan said.
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