A Break It Down Show Pod Cast: Paying Criminal Not to Commit Crimes or is There Something More to The Story?

Devone Boggan

If you try to change things constructively in the social sciences or try to reconcile conflicts, rather than take sides, you’ll be attacked through character assassination and every other means of skullduggery not excluding physical assault. It is inevitable and inescapable. It will disgust you to the point of confusion and, at times, rage. That beautiful beatitude in the Bible should be changed to read: “Blessed are the peacemakers in heaven; because on Earth, they shall catch hell.” Nonetheless, I’ll stress that the time is finally right, on our planet, for the expansive light of true civilization. Well-informed voices both prophesying and forcing that maturing, suddenly, are being heard everywhere.

One of those voices you can hear is from Office of Neighborhood Safety Director DeVone Boggan who joins Pete and Jon from the Break It Down Show to talk about the revolutionary program that is drastically reducing the frequency of gun-related homicides and assaults in the city of Richmond, CA.

As I listened to part 1 and part 2 of the show I was fascinated with DeVone’s approach towards reducing gun violence. I had heard about the program via the media and the cascade of information “paying criminals not to commit crimes” seemed to be all I heard and like most cops shrugged it off as B.S. I got caught up in what Daniel Kahneman calls in his great book Thinking Fast and Slow “What you see is all there is.” When in reality after listening to this great pod cast I learned quickly what I saw via the media is not all there is when it comes to DeVone’s program. Be wary of constructing a story based only on what you see, you may not realize what you don't know.

“Our mission was simple: says DeVone “to tackle this epidemic of gun violence that was killing so many young men, mostly in our minority communities.”

DeVone has modeled their approach on “Cure Violence,” a community outreach program in Chicago founded by the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. The Chicago project evolved from the Operation Ceasefire program that began in Boston in the mid-1990s. Many of these were successful at reducing gun violence, but we felt that they were too law-enforcement-driven and lacked the social services to help the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods.

DeVone has been accused in the media of simply paying criminals not to shoot, but you'll find out that there is so much more to the program, and it works. DeVone says “The idea of a cash incentive to change behavior is not hard to grasp. The social context for our prospective fellows was a laundry list of deprivation and dysfunction: high unemployment, fragmented families, inadequate education and a heavy dose of substance abuse.”

The deal we offered was this: If they kept their commitment to us for six months — attended meetings, stayed out of trouble, responded to our mentoring — they became eligible to earn up to $1,000 a month for a maximum of nine months.

Predictably, this was controversial: Not everyone was a fan of this cash-for-peace strategy. We had skeptics and critics aplenty, including on the City Council. It was a bold measure, but would it work?

The main law enforcement response to high rates of firearm assaults is stuck in a cycle of police sweeps and mass incarceration. That strategy costs taxpayers a great deal, for little return. We get a shooter of the streets only to be replaced by another person willing to use violence. In many municipalities where gun violence is significant, the city’s public safety expenditure can be a considerable burden on the overall budget. That is not sustainable. Nationally, it is estimated that in 2012 gun violence cost more than $229 billion. The average cost to taxpayers of every gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000.

In contrast, the costs of DeVone’s program were modest. In practice, they have rarely needed to pay the full amount offered under the terms of their deal: Just over half our fellowship participants receive payments, usually in the $300 to $700 range. So if our program prevented gun deaths, there could be little argument about cost-effectiveness.

After learning some interesting facts from the police they developed a strategy to attack the problem of gun violence.

A police liaison officer told us this startling fact: An estimated 70 percent of shootings and homicides in Richmond in 2009 were caused by just 17 individuals, primarily African-American and Hispanic-American men between the ages of 16 and 25.

He learned something very valuable: Hotspots are hot because of hot people, and hot people are smart and mobile. After looking into this extraordinary fact 17 people responsible for 70 percent of the gun violence DeVone wanted to be sure so they investigated further and learned that the number was actually 28 people responsible for the gun violence, still extraordinary in numbers and in the fact that it let DeVone’s group of neighborhood change agents focus their efforts on these specific individuals.

We employed street-savvy staff members, whom we called neighborhood change agents. Think of their work as a kinder version of stop-and-frisk, more like stop-and-blend with the profile subjects, to build healthy, consistent relationships with those most likely to shoot or be a victim of gunfire. Their responsibility and focus of effort was hunt down the 28 individuals responsible for the gun violence in Richmond CA.

In his book Values For A New Millennium: Activating the Natural Law to: Reduce Violence, Revitalize Our Schools, and Promote Cross-Cultural Harmony Robert Humphreys says, “Since the foundation of the violence is innocent ignorance, that makes it easier to solve than if the basic problem were intentional wrongdoing, but it does not make it easy; easier, but still very difficult. Why so difficult? Because the ignorance at the foundation of the problem is shielded against correction by what we call the truth-resisting embarrassment syndrome. Often neither side of a social conflict wants the true underlying reason for the trouble admitted. Both insist on attributing the problem to more respectable, surface causes (if not, most naively of all, to intentional evil itself).” It’s about bridging this gap through values, and that’s what DeVone Boggan and his colleagues are doing.

Trust between police and the people they protect and serve is essential in a free society. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services. Eventual success for us depended on nothing less than developing a better understanding of human nature including identification of the chief, violence-controlling, universal human values and the means to reinforce those values effectively. What’s strikes me, with DeVone’s approach is obvious, it works. What interests me is why more of us police are not reaching out to folks like DeVone and his group to make a difference in dangerous communities? Is it because we don’t believe it works? Don’t want to believe it works, because our hubris won’t allow it? Or is it more because we are afraid to seek help from outside unconventional agencies who approach adaptive challenges like violence in unconventional ways? In the end from listening to this interview the word RESPECT seems to be the connection that’s getting results at curtailing violence. DeVone’s approach, his passion, and his execution are all extraordinary. After listening to both parts of this podcast I am interested in learning more.

Stay Oriented!

Fred