Dawaun Rice is just 19 years old, but he’s already lost seven friends to gun violence, he said. Two of them were brothers who were shot on the same day.
Grappling with an urge to avenge his friends’ violent murders, Rice pulled out his phone and considered whether to set a plan in motion for retaliation.
“I have to sit back, and I’ve gotta think, whether to go left or whether to go right,” he said.
After a few moments, he puts away his phone without making a move.
This potent mix of pain, anger and teenagers with guns once made Rice’s hometown of Richmond, California -- across the Bay from San Francisco -- one of the deadliest cities in the country. Here, the streets are hunting grounds where young men run for their lives as they try to escape the bullets.
In 2007, the city brought in DeVone Boggan, a youth development policy professional with an expertise in chronic violent offenders and the founder of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, who came up with a controversial solution: Pay young men like Rice not to pull the trigger. The better the behavior, the better the paycheck.
This month, Rice got the maximum -- $1,300.
Rice is just one of two-dozen men in an 18-month-long fellowship that’s run out of Boggan’s Office of Neighborhood Safety or “ONS,” mostly funded by taxpayers.
Boggan said the program is not about paying people to not kill somebody, but instead about paying them so they can “get their lives together,” and he said preventing violence ultimately costs society less, reducing city expenses for law enforcement, hospital bills and incarceration.
Rice has been holding down a job, which is progress for a young man who was first arrested at age 12 for armed robbery. He said he was homeless and stole an iPhone to help his single mother pay her bills. Boggan said Rice was well-known on the streets.
To help these kids navigate life-or-death choices, Boggan enlisted men to work the frontlines every day.
“Most of our guys have come out of either state or federal prison,” Boggan said.
Their checkered backgrounds is one of the things that makes them particularly suited to the most crucial part of their job: interrupting violence.
Rice had been doing so well, he qualified for the next huge reward in the program, which was an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, but there’s a catch.
“You have to be willing to travel with someone that’s trying to kill you or that you’re suspected of trying to kill,” Boggan said.
Rice was paired with Marrico Williams from a rival neighborhood. So far, 18-year-old Williams has not been shot, but his mother fears it could be a matter of time before she will have to bury her son.
Before the trip, both Rice and Williams were each joined by another fellow in the program from their own neighborhood for a pre-trip meeting. The ONS agents stayed close just in case, and tension was high over a recent Facebook post in which Rice said Williams’ crew made fun of one of Rice’s friends who was killed recently. Social media posts have been a flashpoint for violence in the community before.
After they confronted each other about it, Williams and his friend agreed that the post should be deleted, and then later it was. The fact that these young men were able to navigate the conflict with words instead of violence was a huge step for them.
“Without this program, would’ve never met. We would’ve never had an encounter like that. It would’ve been negativity,” Rice said. “It’s a rivalry but it’s always good to have respect everywhere.”
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of homicides have dropped 76 percent across Richmond, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program. It’s a number that can’t be attributed to ONS alone. ONS said its proof their approach is working: The vast majority of fellows, 94 percent, are still alive, according to National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
“We want to expose them to a world where they go from, ‘I don’t give a ...' to a place where, 'Maybe I do,’” Boggan said.
Back in Richmond, when a young man phoned James Houston, one of Boggan’s staff, and told him he thought he was being hunted and that there was a car full of suspected rivals parked in front of his house, Houston and another ONS agent, Sam Vaughn, went over there to talk to him, putting their own lives at risk, to stop a potential shooting. They stayed with him until the young man calmed down, Houston said.
“It is a cry for help. It just isn’t the typical one,” Houston said. “Because they don’t want to do something, but they feel like they have to. ... The major things we intervene in, nobody knows about.”
The Change Agents say many of the fellows in the program still carry guns for protection.
“Right now, we’re just trying to teach them not to deal with their conflict with violence,” Vaughn said.
So many armed men on the streets is not something the Richmond police are comfortable with.
ONS is "kind of on their own track and we’re on ours,” said Richmond Police Officer Ben Therriault. “I don’t know what they’re doing on the street level.”
It’s still a place where a routine traffic stop turned into an armed standoff, but in the end no shots were fired. Police seized two guns from the four men inside the car they stopped.
“The thing that is unfortunate about it is ... he may bail out before I even get off work. You know? And there’s two firearms recovered in the vehicle,” said Officer Terry Thomas.
ONS's approach is garnering national attention, and other cities struggling with gun violence, including Baltimore, D.C., and Oakland, are now asking Boggan for his help.
“I see these young men as sons. And a part of their growth and development requires a little coddling, coaching ... discipline, that’s what they get here,” Boggan said. "It's not that hard. ... These young men shoot because when they shoot they matter. It’s when we pay attention to them.”