Did This City Bring Down Its Murder Rate by Paying People Not to Kill?
A controversial experiment in Richmond, California, may have slashed street violence—or maybe it just got lucky.
—By Tim Murphy
"We have better information than the police," DeVone Bo n, the director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Photographs by Brian L. Frank
It was a crazy idea,
but Richmond, California, wouldn't have signed off on DeVone Bo n's
plan if it had been suffering from an abundance of sanity. For years,
the Bay Area city had been battling one of the nation's worst homicide
rates and spending millions of dollars on anti-crime programs to no
avail. A state senator compared the city to Iraq, and the City Council
debated declaring a state of emergency. In September 2006, a man was shot in the face at a funeral for a teenager who had been gunned down two weeks earlier, spurring local clergy to urge city hall to try something new—now.
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what
you've always gotten," says Andre Shumake Sr., a 56-year-old Baptist
minister whose son was shot six times while riding his bicycle. "It was
time to do something different."
Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the
consultants approached Bo n. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics
like police sweeps weren't the solution. More than anything, Bo n,
who'd been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by
the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in
Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the
wrong time or in the wrong place. Bo n wondered: What if we identified
the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?
Bo n submitted his proposal. He didn't expect the city to come back
and ask him to make it happen. "They asked me for a three-year
commitment and told me to put on my seatbelt," he recalls.
In late 2007, Bo n launched the
Office of Neighborhood Safety, an experimental public-private
partnership that's introduced the "Richmond model" for rolling back
street violence. It has done it with a mix of data mining and mentoring,
and by crossing lines that other anti-crime initiatives have only
tiptoed around. Four times a year, the program's street team sifts
through police records and its own intelligence to determine, with
actuarial detachment, the 50 people in Richmond most likely to shoot
someone and to be shot themselves. ONS tracks them and
approaches the most lethal (and vulnerable) on the list, offering them a
spot in a program that includes a stipend to turn their lives around.
While ONS is city-funded and has the blessing of the chief of police, it
resolutely does not share information with the cops. "It's the only
agency where you're required to have a criminal background to be an
employee," Bo n jokes.
So far, the results have been promising: As this story went to press,
65 of the 68 "fellows" enrolled in the program in the previous 47
months were still alive. One had survived a shooting and three had died. In
2007, when Bo n's program began, Richmond was America's ninth most
dangerous city, with 47 killings among its 106,000 residents. In 2013,
it saw its lowest number of homicides in 33 years, and its homicide rate
fell to 15 per 100,000. Rates are dropping nationwide, but not so
steeply. (In 2013, nearby Oakland's homicide rate was 23 per 100,000;
Detroit's was 47 per 100,000.)
When Bo n picks me up at the Richmond BART station on a rainy
February afternoon, the city is in the midst of a four-month stretch
without any gun murders—its longest since he started ONS. As he rattles
off the numbers, he looks for a piece of wood to knock on before
settling, with a touch of self-deprecation, on his head.
ONS mentors like Kevin Yarbrough patrol Richmond's streets, searching for information and building trust. Brian L. Frank
Bo n, 47, is bald with graying stubble. He
wears a black-and-white houndstooth hat and a pin with a peace sign and
the ONS logo on the left breast of his gray fleece jacket. He carries
himself with the assurance of a tough-love motivational speaker, which
seems to run in the family. His brother is a football coach; his father
was a city manager. Growing up as "a kid at the fringes" in Michigan, he
was busted for selling drugs. He credits two mentors with turning his
life around. "I desperately needed strong, caring, and consistent adults
who were willing to take a risk in believing in me," he says. He went
on to attend the University of California-Berkeley and directed a
consulting firm in Oakland that specialized in developing youth
mentoring programs. But he was ready to work on something more enduring.
"As a consultant, you build your sand castle and then you leave."
That's when Richmond came calling.
Much of what ONS does has been tried before, with some success. In the 1990s, Boston's Operation Ceasefire
brought together teams of streetworkers and cops to help reduce the
youth homicide rate by 73 percent in one year. A Chicago program employs
"interrupters," who attempt to prevent retaliatory violence by
confronting and counseling would-be shooters. Chicago's public school
system enlisted MIT statisticians and Freakonomics coauthor Steven Levitt to create algorithms that determined which students were most at risk of getting shot. The kids were then matched with mentors.
Bo n saw lessons in these approaches, but also some limits. The
"Boston Miracle" leaned heavily on the stick and not the carrot, using
the threat of incarceration to scare gang members into cooperating. The
interrupters, the subject of a documentary by the director of Hoop Dreams,
are often left playing whack-a-mole with one hot spot after another.
The Chicago school program, which has struggled with funding, ends when
students graduate. Plus, the social programs and job training that had
been promised in Chicago didn't reach their intended targets.
Bo n believed that his program would be more effective if it did
more with less. Instead of seeking to turn around entire neighborhoods,
it would identify a tiny group of individuals and focus on their
behavior. It's a little like stop-and-frisk, except the profiled
subjects are singled out for positive attention and opportunities.
"I want us to hunt 'em like they hunt, and I want us to hunt for information," Bo n says. "We have better information than the police."
Here's how it works: A team of seven "neighborhood change agents"
patrol the streets like beat cops, keeping tabs on the 50 high-risk
members of what Bo n calls the "focus group." The coordinators, most
of them former convicts, check in with their sources at corner stores,
barbershops, and churches and report back daily on what they've heard.
"I want us to hunt 'em like they hunt, and I want us to hunt
for information," Bo n says. "We have better information than the
police." Once a certain level of trust has been established between the
coordinators and their targets, a meeting is arranged, and the pitch is
In exchange for shunning dangerous behavior, ONS fellows receive
anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per month, depending on their progress
following a "life map" of personal and professional goals. If they team
up with someone from a rival community to renounce violence altogether,
they can get even more money—though that's yet to happen. Fellows can
receive stipends for 9 of their 18 months in the program. The city gave
ONS $1.2 million for its operating budget last year, but the money for
the stipends came from a handful of private donors, including the health
care giant Kaiser Permanente. (A Kaiser spokeswoman says the program is
good for "diffusing community tensions and reducing violence," thereby
limiting stress-related health risks like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.)
ONS staffers help fellows take concrete steps toward stability, from
providing assistance in getting a driver's license or a GED to helping
raise $5,000 for a merchant-marine training class. Though the program
officially cuts off when fellows turn 25, Bo n says ONS tries to stay
in touch with them as long as possible.
Despite the morbid implications of finding themselves on ONS's list,
the targets don't always respond right away. "It's just words,
sometimes," says Eric Welch, a 25-year-old ONS fellow who was shot
twice—the first time when he was 15—before joining the program. "To me
it ain't nothing that I ain't never heard before." But ONS kept after
him, and eventually Welch realized the danger was real. "It was just
like, 'Okay, he's saying this for a reason.'"
"The analogy here is infectious disease," says Barry Krisberg,
a UC-Berkeley criminologist who has advised Bo n. For years, crime
fighters had combated epidemics of violence by quarantining criminals in
prison. Bo n took what he'd seen in other cities and adopted a new
course of treatment: By inoculating the carriers of violence, perhaps
you can protect an entire community.
Richmond Councilmember Courtland "Corky"
Boozé, an ONS critic, says he'd like to see the group and Bo n brought
"to their knees." Brian L. Frank
The program is not without its critics. Chief among them is Courtland "Corky" Boozé,
a city councilman who once helped integrate the sport of drag racing.
("Powered by the Black Man" was painted on the rear of his car.) Boozé
has said he would like to see ONS and Bo n brought "to their knees,"
and he claims that the program wants him dead for demanding proof of
its impact. In his view, unverified reports of ONS's achievements are
naive and a little racist: "White folks like to pat black folks on the
head, give 'em a few bucks, and think that their problems will go away.
It never happens."
Bo n, who is African American, dismisses that criticism as "shallow
thinking" and "race baiting" and says he'd rather ignore Boozé than
focus on "counterproductive energy." But it's hard to dismiss Boozé's
argument that better policing and neighborhood cooperation had a lot to
do with bringing down the city's murder numbers. When Police Chief Chris
Magnus came to Richmond from Fargo, North Dakota, just as ONS was in
the planning stages, he reorganized his officers' beats and scrapped
"Nitro" street sweeps, which padded arrest stats but did nothing to curb
ONS may have evolved alongside the new chief's reforms, but it
doesn't work with the cops—in fact, it outright refuses to cooperate
with law enforcement. Partly that's because its mentors fear being
perceived as informants, and partly because most of them, having done
time themselves, are in no hurry to expedite anyone else's trip to
prison. Bo n proudly notes that ONS staffers have never testified for
or against anyone in court.
The ONS office occupies what used to be a jail in a redbrick building
that also houses the City Council. Its third-floor office is best known
as the site of what the media nicknamed the "City Hall Brawl."
Among ONS staffers, it's known as "D-Day." On October 14, 2011, two
rival groups of young men showed up to check in with their mentors. They
traded insults in the parking lot before heading inside, only to find
the ONS office empty, at which point punches started flying. A local
paper covered the fracas for two weeks, and the story even wound up on
the Drudge Report. Shortly thereafter, a police report about a
female ONS staffer allegedly caught in an R-rated moment with a gang
member conveniently found its way to the press. To outsiders, Bo n
says, "It was like, 'What kind of crap are they doing in Richmond?'"
Yet from another perspective, the incident marked a turning point. The everyday violence in Richmond "was like a battering ram—boom boom boom!"
says Bo n. And then there were the politics. "The first several years
I basically said every day, 'I'm done,'" he recalls. But on that
infamous day, eight of the city's most dangerous citizens had convened
in close quarters and the only damage was a broken nose. When the City
Council met to discuss ONS's fate, its supporters filled the chambers
with signs saying "I Support DeVone Bo n."
ONS mentors say the incident helped seal the deal with skeptical
targets, but Bo n admits that the tension over the program remains.
"Law enforcement is challenged by this idea that the people you're
trying to change are the ones committing the crimes," he says. Chief
Magnus says he sees ONS as a partner in spite of its policy of
noncooperation, though he chooses his words carefully. "I accept that
we're working to accomplish a lot of the same things, but we're doing it
in different ways. I think there's a respect for that."
A memorial to a victim of gun violence in Richmond Brian L. Frank
When I visit the ONS office, six outreach coordinators are sitting around a coffee table where copies of Sports Illustrated are
mixed with literature on restraining orders and a brochure for a class
on heavy construction equipment. Everyone has a stapled Excel
spreadsheet, and for the next hour, Kevin Muccular, a former offensive
lineman at Florida A&M University and the only ONS mentor without a
prior felony conviction, leads them through the list of current and
A guy on the list was seen walking through an unfriendly neighborhood
in a transparent attempt to draw gunfire. Someone else has started
pimping. "They do know they get, like, real time for that?" someone
asks. More than a few members of the focus group are in jail—one for a
dirty urine test, one for being in the same house as a loaded gun that
belonged to his mother. Another guy on the list was
the subject of a warrant for a shooting. "I thought someone else did
it," one of the ONS guys says. Well, yes, but it's complicated.
Outreach coordinator Kevin Yarbrough recounts running into one of his targets outside a liquor store.
"What was it he was drinking again?" Muccular asks.
"He's a hardcore dude with a bottle of pink moscato," Yarbrough says. "The only thing missing was a wine glass."
"With a pinkie out," adds Sam Vaughn, who led a self-help program for
San Quentin inmates while serving a 10-year sentence for attempted
murder. Like most of his colleagues, he probably would have found
himself on the ONS list had it existed back in his younger, volatile
Yarbrough says he has a story for me. "Joe shot me!" he exclaims.
Well, not literally, but on July 3, 1989—you remember these kinds of
dates—Joe McCoy's crew shot him in retaliation for a gunfight a couple
of days earlier. Yarbrough pulls up his sleeve to reveal a hamster-size
scar on his inner forearm.
"We just had a hothead out there who didn't know to—"
"Grieve without violence," says McCoy, a lanky 44-year-old with a black knit cap pulled down low.
"Grieve without violence," Yarbrough agrees.
For now, no one can definitively say
whether Richmond's program is a model, a fluke, or something in
between. "We're not doing the evaluations we should be doing; we're not
bringing in objective people to look at it," UC-Berkeley's Krisberg
admits. But the National Council on Crime and Delinquency,
which receives funding from the Department of Justice and the Walton
Family Foundation, is studying the program's implementation. "Nobody
else is doing anything else like this," says Angela Wolf, the
psychologist leading the study.
There's a smidgen of empirical precedent
for Bo n's experiment. In 1972, the Labor Department provided
financial assistance to released prisoners in Baltimore. The results
suggested that paying former prisoners to stay out of trouble was the
most effective way to reduce recidivism. However, the program was never
While ONS has the blessing of the chief of
police, it does not share information with the cops. "It's the only
agency where you're required to have a criminal background to be an
employee," Bo n jokes.
Some Richmond residents, for their part, have seen enough
well-intentioned programs come and go to be wary. Kenneth Davis, a
community activist, bemoans "poverty pimps" who collect fat city
contracts for social services without any clear measure of results.
"DeVone's in a good position, he's got a good job, he's making decent
money, and he's in the mayor's favor—but I was in the mayor's favor
too," he says.
Even ONS's success stories are a testament to its limits. Rohnell
Robinson, a four-year ONS fellow, gushes about the places he's visited
with Bo n's help—Cowboys Stadium, Dubai—but he confesses that being a
part of ONS can be a sort of purgatory where the cops still think you're
a thug and your friends think you may be a narc. "It's like you gotta
protect yourself two times." The worst part, he says, is "the hate you
get coming from your peers, the people you grew up with and who are
living on the other side of the fence." Eric Welch, who was shot two
more times after joining ONS, has since moved to Florida.
There's a finger-in-the-dike sense among the ONS street team, too, a
reflection of the enormity of the challenge. "We just five dudes in a
little tiny office with a helluva director," McCoy says. "We're like the
300." But there's always the open question of whether ONS is a
house of cards that could collapse with a single bullet. "The lesson
learned in Boston is that you can't afford to get complacent and think
it's a 'Mission Accomplished,' George Bush-esque scenario here," says
Three weeks after I met with Bo n, the city's 137-day murder-free streak ended. A 38-year-old man was killed in a drive-by shooting,
and over the next few weeks, Richmond seemed to be sliding back to the
bad old days. A 43-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man were gunned down within 24 hours of each other. A 30-year-old woman shot the 16-year-old father of her child in a dispute over his new girlfriend. A robber was shot and killed during a break-in. None of them was on Bo n's list.