KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Not long ago, Richmond, Calif., just east of San Francisco, was considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. The homicide rate had skyrocketed, and that was mostly because of gangs - gangs settling personal or territorial disputes.
Today, the city of about 100,000 people is being called a national model for reducing gun violence. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports on how Richmond did it.
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RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: A police scanner crackles in the car of Joseph McCoy.
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GONZALES: McCoy is 46. He wears black-framed glasses and has a thin, athletic build. He cruises around this tough, blue-collar town in a small, city-owned car listening for reports of shots fired.
JOSEPH MCCOY: If it is a shooting, we definitely go to check out to see what's going on because we try to create a pause on the next shooting. We're trying to figure out how to keep the next shooting from happening.
GONZALES: McCoy is one of about a half-dozen neighborhood change agents, all ex-cons with serious street cred. They're city employees who keep track, sometimes a couple times a day, of scores of known gun offenders or youths at risk of being shot.
MCCOY: Right now we're out doing outreach. There was young people that had an altercation yesterday, they're brothers, a fist fight. So I need to go out here and make sure that they're OK.
GONZALES: As we roll up to a run-down housing project, McCoy motions over to three young men ages 19 through 23.
MCCOY: Hop in for a minute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't want to sit in the back seat.
MCCOY: OK, we ain't going to be a minute. So man - but man - now I'll listen to his side, right?
GONZALES: McCoy has brief words with each one individually. Mainly it's about brothers respecting each other, keeping the peace at home and on the street. It's understood that McCoy won't speak to the police about anything said here. In just a few minutes, we're rolling away.
MCCOY: We do something real simple that folks just don't realize how powerful it is. We love all our youngsters. We come from a sincere place that we love each and every last one of the people that we touch, and we try to touch as many people as possible.
GONZALES: This street outreach is just one part of a broader program designed by DeVone Boggan. He's the former director of a city department called the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Back in 2007, Boggan was a community activist when he was first hired to do something about gun violence. Richmond had recorded 47 homicides.
DEVONE BOGGAN: If you paid attention to the media reports and the frequency of media reports about gun violence enrichment, you would've believed you were in Beirut.
GONZALES: Boggan started the street outreach program in 2008 and saw immediate results. That year, there were 40 percent fewer homicides. But the number of murders climbed again in 2009. Then, in meetings with local law enforcement, Boggan made a startling discovery.
BOGGAN: And what I continued to hear was folks believed that there were 17 people responsible for 70 percent of the firearm activity in our city. Seventeen people. We can do something about that.
GONZALES: Boggan and his team launched the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. They identified those 17 people and several more, and made them an offer - we'll give you counseling, social services, a job a chance, to travel if you develop a life map, agree to stay in contact every day and stay out of trouble. Then we'll pay you up to a $1,000 a month for nine months.
The result? Richmond has seen its murder rate cut in half since the fellowship began. Boggan says the street patrols are paid by the city. The cash stipends come from private donors. He chuckles when he says media reports have called the program cash for criminals.
BOGGAN: If you believe that simply paying someone a stipend will reduce gun crimes in cities where gun crimes are long and loud, you're wrong. You're in for a very rude awakening. We've done something much, much more comprehensive than that.
GONZALES: Just ask 18-year-old Joel Contreras. He's big like a high school linebacker and has a mouth full of gold caps on his teeth. He says about a year ago, he wasn't living right - guns, robberies and trouble. Contreras says when he was first offered a chance to change his life, he turned it down.
JOEL CONTRERAS: I walked away from him. Ten minutes later, I hit the corner. I get shot. The car was shot a couple of times. Me and my friend were both injured.
GONZALES: Contreras says he doesn't know who shot him in the back of the neck or why. But when the outreach workers came back to see him, Contreras says he was ready to listen.
CONTRERAS: They helped me get a job. They helped me get my driver's license. They was pushing me, pushing me, helping me out. They helped me get back in school, which I wouldn't be able to do without them. I graduated high school thanks to them.
GONZALES: Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety borrows from similar models in Boston and Chicago. What's different in Richmond is its tight focus on a targeted group and the cash payments.
The approach is attracting interest from across the country. Washington, D.C. is adopting a similar program. Oakland and Toledo are among other cities considering the Richmond model.
ANGELA WOLF: They always ask me, is it going to work and how much is it going to cost?
GONZALES: Angela Wolf is a researcher at the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. She wrote an evaluation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Wolf says she advises other cities interested in the Richmond model to get ready for a multi-year commitment.
WOLF: If you have city leaders that aren't willing to think outside the box and try something different, this is going to be a harder program to get off the ground.
GONZALES: That's especially true, says Wolf, if a city doesn't see immediate results. Then there's the question of dealing with the local police.
CHIEF ALLWYN BROWN: The ONS approach was pretty unorthodox when it started.
GONZALES: Allwyn Brown is a police chief in Richmond. He says he knows that ONS's neighborhood change agents don't cooperate or share information with his officers. But he says that while ONS's approach is different, they share a common goal.
BROWN: Here's the thing - I mean, we recognize that the problem is bigger than what we can deal with and, you know, arresting and incarcerating people isn't going to solve the problem. I mean, it just isn't.
GONZALES: Despite Richmond's success, its struggle to stop gun violence is far from over. Homicides spiked to 21 last year after there were only 11 in 2014. And DeVone Boggan is stepping down as day-to-day director of the Richmond program to consult with other cities trying to replicate it. He says he's realistic about what can be accomplished.
BOGGAN: My wife reminds me often that gun violence in Richmond is much like diabetes in that DeVone, you don't cure diabetes. What you do is you try to manage it.
GONZALES: And to do that, says Boggan, you have to connect with the people driving the violence and steer them in the right way. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Richmond, Calif.
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