Crime - Sacto 911

Sacramento rushed to approve gun violence program – and then waited

Del Paso Heights advocate Dionne Johnson of the Brother to Brother grassroots gang prevention organization speaks to the Sacramento City Council in support of Advance Peace, a controversial gun-violence prevention program.
Del Paso Heights advocate Dionne Johnson of the Brother to Brother grassroots gang prevention organization speaks to the Sacramento City Council in support of Advance Peace, a controversial gun-violence prevention program.

In late August, the city of Sacramento faced a crisis: Gun violence in certain neighborhoods seemed out of control.

The police department was investigating five open gun-related homicides, and 13 people in the city had died from gunshots during the year. The latest incident was a drive-by shooting in Meadowview, linked to an online battle of insults between local rap artists with gang ties. It quickly became the breaking point in a summer of bloodshed. Community activists and city leaders stood in the park where the shooting happened and agreed on one thing: What was being done to stop gun crime wasn’t effective.

Sacramento’s City Council called a special meeting on Aug. 29 and unanimously voted to approve a three-year, $1.5 million contract for Advance Peace, a controversial mentoring and intervention approach to curbing gun violence that was pioneered in Richmond, Calif.

Berry Accius, a community organizer in Meadowview, called those intense days a “come to Jesus moment,” when city officials realized the problem of gun violence requires more than “just throwing police in an area and trying to work it out that way.”

Nearly three months later, the city’s contract with Advance Peace is in limbo, gun violence continues and the organization is considering going elsewhere.

Community leaders want to know where the resolve has gone.

“I feel like the city manager’s office has failed in keeping the urgency,” said Ryan McClinton, a community organizer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a group that focuses on racial equality issues. “It seems like it’s been stalled out. ... We are trying to figure out from the city specifically, what is the hold up?”

The city manager, city leaders and Advance Peace leaders will meet face-to-face for the first time on Wednesday to try to break the impasse and come to terms. It will likely be the make-it-or-break-it moment for the program in Sacramento.

In September alone, there were six firearm-related homicides out of a total of seven killings in the city, and 25 firearm assaults, according to city statistics drawn from police department data. One hundred and one guns were seized by police. Six of the homicide victims were black, including two teens.

“It’s hard to believe that if bodies were dropping in the Natomas district, this would be an issue,” said McClinton.

For months, say those with knowledge of the situation, the contract has been caught up in a back-and-forth between Advance Peace and the city, largely centering on how long a commitment the city is willing to make to the program and its participants. Advance Peace asked for four years in which it would match the funding provided by the city. The city wants the option to cancel earlier.

Some of the debate was expected. During the August meeting, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby expressed a list of concerns with the agreement. She said the proposal was “sorely lacking (in details) and in my opinion leaves the city of Sacramento completely vulnerable to being taken advantage of.”

The five-page contract approved by Council that night came with the caveat that it would be amended to address Ashby’s concerns. Ashby didn’t return requests for comment this week.

The contract has now nearly doubled in length, said DeVone Boggan, founder and head of Advance Peace. The city declined to provide The Bee a copy of the current version.

Advance Peace carries risks. While it has data to back its results in Richmond, no one knows if those results can be replicated in Sacramento or anyplace else.

The Advance Peace program in Sacramento would target about 50 young men, mostly black and Latino, who are thought by police and city leaders to be responsible for most gun violence in the city, especially gang-related crimes that are often retaliatory and personal.

Those “most lethal young men walking the streets,” as Boggan describes them, are matched with streetwise ex-gang members – many convicted gun felons who have reformed into stable lives but still have the neighborhood credibility to speak to younger generations of gang members.

Those mentors help recruit “fellows” into an 18-month program that uses one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy and life coaching – along with a stipend of up to $1,000 a month for nine months – to help participants move away from violence.

City leaders in Richmond, including the city manager, credit the program with helping to significantly reduce gun crime.

Critics nationwide ridicule it as paying criminals not to shoot.

Despite the controversy over his methods, Boggan received philanthropic venture capital from Silicon Valley heavyweight DRK Foundation to test the model in multiple California cities with the goal of creating a program that can be reliably used nationwide. Sacramento would pilot that effort, being the first test case outside Richmond to see if Advance Peace really works.

Boggan said he’s worried that compromising too much in the contract – especially when it comes to the city committing to take that first group of 50 all the way through the program – could lead to failure. The young men he’s trying to reach, he said, can be mistrustful and difficult. From his experience in Richmond, he knows it may take months to even get them to talk, and some will inevitably stick with a criminal life in the end.

“The first-year fellows are going to test all of our wills. These young men will throw everything and the kitchen sink at us,” said Boggan. “We want an uninterrupted commitment because we know change doesn’t happen overnight.”

If Advance Peace fails here, it will likely make national news with Sacramento tied to that failure – a political risk for the mayor and council and a black eye for city manager Howard Chan, who is still in his first year of leadership.

Sacramento received a taste of the potential backlash after the August contract approval. One online website, Red State Nation, wrote the headline, “Insane! Liberals in California Lose Their Minds – Paying Gang Members Not to Kill People.” Fox News reported their story as “Sacramento plans to pay gang members $1.5M to keep the peace.”

Though Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn has said he will support Advance Peace, other local law enforcement officials have resisted.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said in a July statement she had “many concerns.” On Tuesday, her office confirmed that she still does.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said in a July statement that he had “fundamental objections” to Advance Peace.

“I am against any funding being used to pay criminals not to commit crimes and violent offenders not to shoot people. The committee that facilitates this does not involve law enforcement at all, and it is my understanding that if they become aware that a participant is committing crimes they will not notify law enforcement. I will be following this group with interest,” Jones wrote in a Tuesday statement to The Bee.

An anonymous Facebook page called SPD Underground that purports to be the voice of some rank and file members of the Sacramento Police Department – and which The Bee confirmed has regular participation from dispatchers and law enforcement members – wrote, “Great idea. Pay people for doing what they should be doing all along, following the law and taking care of their kids. Who says crime doesn’t pay.”

The mayor and city council members said despite the rancor and risk – and the delay – they remain committed to Advance Peace.

“It’s very frustrating and it’s still something that I think we sorely need,” said Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents Oak Park – one of the neighborhoods the program would target. “I have requested from the city manger on numerous occasions updates and offered my assistance. And I know he is pushing pretty hard right now.”

Jennings was more forceful, both with the commitment Boggan is seeking and his desire for Sacramento to be the test city for Advance Peace.

“We still believe strongly in the program and what it can do and what it will do to change lives, so we are fully committed to it,” he said. “This is a long-term strategy. This is not a quick fix. ... I have no question in my mind that we will not fail. I won’t let the city of Sacramento fail on this initiative.”

Steinberg was on a holiday cruise with his family and could not be reached Tuesday, but his spokeswoman Kelly Rivas confirmed he “strongly” supports moving forward.

A final resolution will likely come this week.

“I understand the urgency from the community,” said Chan, the city manager, who ultimately must sign the contract. “I feel it as well, and am optimistic when we meet (this) week, we can get this done.”

DeVone Boggan with Richmond, Calif's Office of Neighborhood Safety explains how Advance Peace disrupts the cycle of gun violence in communities. The program could be coming to Sacramento in the near future if it makes it past a city council vote.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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