America Can Stop Gun Violence—Here’s What Actually Works
What do effective approaches to public safety look like? And who takes the lead—Communities? Police? Both? For perspective, Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf sat down with DeVone Boggan, founder of Advance Peace, an organization based in Richmond, California, that is spreading effective community-led responses to retaliatory and cyclical gun violence that reduce gun violence by as much as 80%. Boggan was tapped this summer by President Biden to help inform the White House Domestic Policy Council on what works to reduce urban gun violence and deliver sustained results for our most impacted American cities.
Simon Stumpf: DeVone, you started looking at this issue of urban gun violence over 15 years ago. What was your assessment of what needed to change?
DeVone Boggan: Almost everything. Violent crime, and specifically gun violence, plagues many of our urban neighborhoods, and we have seemed to have but one answer: policing and more policing. And data proves that this hasn’t worked for those impacted communities. So, in 2006, we created the first Office of Violence Prevention that would sit inside of city government and focus with a non-law-enforcement lens on reducing gunfire. We received a lot of blow-back in the early years for what was then a new idea. We now have more than 25 such offices in government across the country that are working to reduce gun violence and help solve other social challenges. Even still, policing has a large footprint and heavy lobbying influences parading it as the sole and most effective solution, even where the data and research tell us differently. Much of the data available tells us that we should be asking ourselves, “is this approach actually costing us real public safety?”
Stumpf: And in fact, your starting point is very different – you engage active firearm offenders. Tell us more.
Boggan: That’s right. When I was building out the Office of Violence Prevention called the “Office of Neighborhood Safety” in Richmond, I learned that in cities where gun crimes are high, it’s a relatively small group—mostly men, mostly men of color, mostly under the age of 30—who drive most of the violence, i.e., solve conflicts with a firearm. You would think, based on the numbers, “It’s got to be a lot of people involved.” But in every city, including cities like Chicago, it’s a relatively small group of folks.
Stumpf: “Small group” meaning dozens of people or fewer, versus hundreds?
Boggan: That’s right. And it depends on the population size of the respective city. I’d say in most cases less than .03 percent of the population. The implication being, we can actually wrap our arms around this. It’s not so overwhelming that we can’t get under it. Looking more closely, we also realized that nearly 98% of these individuals were not being engaged by any other public or community-based system of care. We have surmised that to achieve optimal gun violence reduction outcomes that translates into saved lives, we cannot overlook engaging this key group of individuals.Advance Peace is built around these learnings, the critical piece being these young men must be at the center of the solution equation. They must also be supported by folks who themselves were once there, have changed their lives around, and are making positive, healthy contributions to their communities.
Stumpf: So you created a new role—“Neighborhood Change Agent.”
Boggan: Yes, these NCAs are visibly present in neighborhoods where gun violence is prevalent. They are known and familiar with the neighborhoods. They have a common-lived experience and legitimate authority with the impacted individuals. They can develop healthy, trusting, and protective relationships with individuals at the center of gun violence. NCAs must have a fearlessness about navigating impacted neighborhoods. Why? Because it’s hard to help people that you’re afraid of, right? I was successful at convincing the city of Richmond, California, to hire formerly incarcerated residents with gun charges in their backgrounds as full-time, fully vested, well-paid, city government employees. Individuals while incarcerated had done the work to develop and heal themselves. We invited them to join our team and help us solve a problem that we could not solve without them.
Stumpf: Has it worked?
Boggan: Yes, on many levels. Richmond is one of a very few American cities that’s been able to dramatically reduce gunfire and sustain those reductions long-term—70% to 80% reductions, sustained for over a decade. Now we have robust studies available about what the work does. The model works when administered with fidelity. Over time, achieved reductions are sustained, and it therefore pays for itself. We’re also seeing a mindset shift about what expertise looks like when it comes to addressing gun violence. For example, one of the neighborhood change agents that I hired in February of 2008 one is now the director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in the city of Richmond. This young man is a formerly incarcerated, 12-year veteran of San Quentin State Prison for attempted murder with a firearm. He now sits as the third most influential public safety figure inside of that city government. He’s a trusted, valued part of the public safety team in Richmond and the state of California.
Stumpf: How has your role evolved as you’ve brought in new and different kinds of leadership?
Boggan: Over the last five years since we launched Advance Peace, more people, particularly policymakers, are understanding that they’ve got to reach for something other than traditional criminal justice tools to optimally impact community safety outcomes. What we do isn’t rocket science. It’s practical, data driven, life affirming and needs to be given an opportunity to gain greater traction. We recognize that leadership exists within the impacted communities. We must seek it out and create space for developing and empowering it to fulfill its greatest potential. That’s what Advance Peace does really well with those we hire and those who are the center of gun violence. Doing this right has a ripple effect because gun violence begets gun violence. That’s the cyclical and retaliatory nature of it.
Stumpf: Empathy is at the core of your approach—this comes from your life?
Boggan: Yes, I am both passionate and compassionate about who we partner with within impacted communities. My family too has been touched by firearm violence. This violence occurred during my first year as neighborhood safety director for the city of Richmond. I was angry. And I was fearful. I had to deal with my own thoughts of revenge. I mean, we all have that in us. From direct experience I can see how in a moment without thinking, some can say to themselves, “I can go over there right now and insert the kind of pain, the kind of anger, and the kind of fear on that neighborhood, on those families, so that they understand what it feels like for me right now.” And this tragic cycle repeats itself. This is the thinking that must be disrupted, as a society.
Stumpf: Advance Peace helps offenders turn their lives around very significantly. How?
Boggan: We connect those at the center of a community’s gun violence with the Peacemaker Fellowship® experience. We start by seeing the humanity in our Fellows, seeing them as family, as assets to be developed. Unaddressed trauma is something that all Fellows have in common. Healing work (physical, psychological and social) is central to everything we do with Fellows. Developing close, trusting, and protective relationships is an important intervention point. We also recognize that 85% of these young people don’t want to live this way. They just don’t have anyone in their ear telling them that they don’t have to do so. The Peacemaker Fellowship is a deep-end engagement. We take a very personalized, individualized attention-intensive approach in our efforts over 18 to 24 months to create an unbreakable friendship—meeting them every single day, multiple times a day, with multiple people. We have learned that intermittent engagement when working to disrupt neglected personal development is not effective. From the standpoint of our Fellows, they’re thinking: This has never happened before. I’ve never had this kind of positive attention. It’s accountable. It’s responsible. And it’s telling me, “You can live a different way.” But more importantly, it’s telling me, “We need you to live longer. The community needs you here.” We are all made to be part of a community. Our work is designed to engineer and ensure healthier inputs and ideas about living and learning how to make positive contributions to one’s personal life, family and community. We have a variety of tools, what we call “touchpoints” that help us to enhance every cognitive, behavioral, and life skills support provided to our Fellows.
Stumpf: DeVone, the country is in a huge conversation right now about how public safety is managed and funded. How are you seeing this moment?
Boggan: I remain optimistic. I believe that the required tipping point for the large-scale adoption of more practical “common-sense” community-driven violence solutions is nearing. All sides must be honest about what we already know, what the data tells us, and about what we continue to learn in this space. Acknowledging that the law enforcement community has an important role to play, and that the impacted communities themselves bring viable answers, value, and optimal solutions that perhaps the criminal justice system does not, is an important start. I’m also encouraged to see many in the media stepping up to better educate people about community-driven, evidence-informed and based alternatives to addressing gun violence that are demonstrating more effective and healthier community outcomes than the easy quick pick of the all that we know as “heavy hand of the law.” Most of us can appreciate that breaking bad habits that have been with us long-term is tough to do. We also know that every breakthrough ever made was first a break-with conventional and status quo thinking and doing. In order to truly achieve healthier, safer and more just communities within those cities where gun violence is now prevalent, this is one of those long standing “bad” habits that we will need to confront honestly and eventually break away from.