Fort Worth

What if Fort Worth hired ex-convicts to fight violent crime? It’s working elsewhere

A program created to reduce crime in Richmond, California, could be a model for Fort Worth as it deals with a flareup of gang violence.

In the mid-2000s, Richmond began to partner with the men most responsible for gun violence and offer them an alternative — to be positive mentors for the younger men of Richmond who had been following in their footsteps. And the mentors would get paid for it.

One of those men, Sam Vaughn, has risen from being imprisoned for attempted murder to being the program manager of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond. The program has become a model for other cities seeking solutions to problems with violence.

After the Star-Telegram published a story about a gang feud in Fort Worth that led to three deaths and at least 10 shootings in May, the newspaper sought to find a city that developed an effective strategy to combat gun culture.

Violent crime in the years following the Richmond program’s implementation dropped more 70 percent, according to city statistics that are reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While the Office of Neighborhood Safety isn’t perfect, Vaughn said it has helped keep 77 percent of the young men mentored through the program — called fellows — alive and out of prison. He’s seen former fellows leave their neighborhood, obtain GEDs, buy houses and even receive college degrees. One man is pursuing a master’s degree in Jacksonville, Florida.

Their mentors were ex-convicts. These men, who came from communities that had been demonized, now live their best lives and make positive changes for the generations behind them.

“It’s hard for some people to understand that these young men can be a potential source for peace, especially considering what they’re suspected of,” Vaughn said in a 2016 TEDMED talk. “But let’s not forget, a vaccine is created from disease.”

“We realized that it’s not brain surgery,” Vaughn told the Star-Telegram. “If you want to change the dynamics, you have to change those responsible for the dynamics, so we partnered with them.”

Fort Worth Councilwoman Kelly Allan Gray said it’s a program she’s now interested in exploring.

“I’d like the opportunity to do some research, involve our city manager and discuss how this or something like this could work within the city to address issues we are having in the community,” she said. “Next Tuesday is our last work session before our Council break. I’ll ask staff to review and bring back for discussion in August. Additionally, it’s definitely worth sharing with the police department to get feedback from their viewpoint.”

Harnessing the power of violent experiences

James Houston said his life has a purpose now. He has made amends for some of the negative things he’s done and he has shared his experiences with young men so they can avoid similar mistakes.

Houston is a mentor — or a “change agent” — with the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond.

Richmond, which is part of the San Francisco Bay Area, had a population of just over 100,000 people in 2007. It has 30.1 square miles of land, compared with Fort Worth’s 342 square miles, and has the longest coastal line of any city in the Bay Area.

Most of the violence, Vaughn said, happens in a neighborhood called the Iron Triangle, named for the three major railroad tracks that define its boundaries.

The residents come from similar backgrounds, more than 40 percent didn’t finish high school. While Richmond’s median household income was $61,000 in 2016, the Iron Triangle’s median household income was $36,000, according to census data.

“I see a lot of myself in the men I’m helping,” Houston said.

Houston had already started to change his life while serving a prison term for second-degree murder. When he was paroled in 2013, he took on his new job with the Office of Neighborhood Safety. He said employing men from the neighborhood to help the neighborhood builds a trust — he can say, “I’ve been there, don’t do this” and mean it.

“It helps that I can see past a person’s actions and try to understand what would make a person act in such way,” he said.

He added that a lot of these men come from single-parent homes and are raised seeing their elders use guns as a way to solve conflict. They grow up often feeling powerless and having a gun makes them powerful.

“I always focused on whatever felt good in the moment,” he said. “I never focused on the impact of my actions or preparing for a future.”

Because when you grow up thinking you don’t have a future, what’s the point of planning for it?

“We get them to think about that future,” Houston said.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt sent the Star-Telegram a memo from April 2019 about how the program operates.

The memo came after a resident criticized the program because two people who had participated were later arrested with “numerous violent felonies,” including murder.

In response to the criticism, the memo said, “unless and until police can take suspected shooters who continue to shoot off the streets, these individuals should be encouraged and implored to change their violent behaviors themselves. Clearly, arrests and prosecutions cannot be the only means of securing safe and just neighborhoods.”

Between 2010 and 2016, 64 of the 84 fellows remained successful in not committing crimes, according to the memo.

The program’s relationship with Richmond police

Vaughn, the program manager, said the Office of Neighborhood Safety is separate from law enforcement for good reason.

“This is a population that’s very untrusting,” he said. “Nothing good comes from trusting outsiders, from their experience. They think. ‘Am I going to be used? Manipulated?’ So once you get through that and they trust you enough, they’ll say, ‘OK let’s try something different.’ That takes time.”

Mayor Butt has similar thoughts.

“In order to work, it has to be separate from law enforcement,” he said.

Asked how officers feel about that, Butt said it’s complicated.

“There are police officers who resent the idea that the city is spending money working with known criminals, and they think the way to do it is to bust them and throw them in jail,” he said. “But I think other cops appreciate it, and they appreciate the job they’re doing. There’s no one answer.”

The program focuses on seven steps. One of them is creating a positive life map with goals ranging from finding legitimate employment, paying child support, getting a copy of their own birth certificate and social security card, to finishing a GED and maybe even moving away from Richmond.

“We help them get everything a normal citizen has access to easily because these were the challenges for them,” Vaughn said.

One of the ways they do that is by introducing the young men to older, successful men to show them what their lives could be.

“How can you be something that you can’t see?” Vaughn said during that TEDMED talk. “There aren’t many lawyers and doctors in the projects.”

Vaughn and the other mentors also take young men on trips outside of Richmond and often outside of California. He said it’s one of the more controversial parts of the program because it involves money and time away, but it’s important to show the participants that there is a life outside of Richmond.

“Life expectancy is very short for people who don’t expect anything,” he said. “We wanted to show them that there is life outside of Richmond, and when you’re on these trips, you’re not concerned with people trying to drive up and shoot you.”

There is one caveat to the trips. Vaughn sets the men up with someone who would normally be their enemy on the streets. It shows them how similar they actually are, even if they grew up on opposite sides of town.

From 2013 to 2015, the group spent $170,000 on travel and $100,000 on stipends, paid with private funds.

The group also works with other local resources, such as anger management classes and drug treatment courses to help improve and prepare the young men.

“We realized that organizations weren’t prepared for the trauma and stress that people were bringing them,” Vaughn said. “They weren’t connected with the people. We started holding organizations responsible to do what they’re supposed to do.”

The program also gives incentives to the fellows if they stay out of trouble.

“After six months of achieving goals, we paid them,” Vaughn said, adding that fellows could get between $300 and $600 depending on the goals they’ve achieved and their continued participation.

Through the program, city officials in Richmond learned that 70 percent of the gun violence was caused by just 28 people and those were the people the program paid to, in turn, stop the violence by becoming mentors.

Police say the gang violence in Fort Worth in May could be linked to about 10 people.

The change agents are city employees with salaries of $55,000. Of Richmond’s $180 million city budget, $1.2 million goes to the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which has six full-time staff members.

“I think the secret to this is some smart person had a light bulb go off, and they realized 90 percent of the gun violence crimes are perpetrated by less than 1 percent of the population, and the victims are also less than 1 percent,” Mayor Butt said. “Instead of trying to draw a big circle and spend tons of money, they lasered in on that handful of people.”

But with the program came some criticism about paying ex-convicts and the lack of law enforcement involvement.

Vaughn, the program manager, said he understands the concern.

“These communities and police have had a dysfunctional relationship for generations,” Vaughn said. “We get information these communities have and normal citizens ask, ‘Why don’t you tell law enforcement?’ Well, we could. And they might get an arrest, but then what else? We lose access to that community and the change ends. It’s hard for people in already healthy communities to understand what it takes for these communities to become healthy.”

Those in Richmond law enforcement were aware of the potential offenders.

“It was also local law enforcement who encouraged (the office) to work with and intervene to try and help these individuals,” according to the memo about the program sent to the Star-Telegram by Richmond’s mayor.

At-risk people in Richmond are living longer and have begun to trust their local government, Vaughn said.

“They’re starting to believe that their government cares about them because, for the most part, these communities had been isolated,” he said.

Success in numbers

The most dangerous part of Richmond — the “Iron Triangle” — had 27 murders in 2007. The city as a whole had 43 gun-related killings.

Community leaders hired consultants in 2006 to figure out what was driving the violence. One of the programs the consultants pitched was a non-law-enforcement department that would focus only on reducing gun violence.

The measure was adopted in 2007, and the Office of Neighborhood Safety was formed. Outreach staff was hired in 2008 to focus on just the triangle. The general fund from the city pays for staffing but every other resource, including the stipends paid to mentors, comes from donated funds.

The next year, there were 25 homicides in Richmond. Only three were in the Iron Triangle.

So the Office of Neighborhood Safety program was extended to the entire city.

There were 11 homicides in 2015 and 15 in 2017. Last year, Richmond went four months without a homicide. It was the longest span that city officials could remember that happening, according to local media.

However, a 2015 study done by the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, said there was no “statistical proof” that the program was single-handedly responsible for reducing violence, according to local media.

Mayor Butt admitted that the program’s success is hard to quantify, “because, yes, our violent crime rate has gone down substantially, but violent crime has gone down in a lot of places around the country. I don’t know if we’re part of a national trend, but we think that (the Office of Neighborhood Safety) is one tool in the toolbox that has been, and continues to be, effective.”

The program has completed five 18-month cycles of fellowships. More than 100 fellows have gone through the program.

“To date, we’ve only lost four to gun violence,” Vaughn said. “So, 102 are still alive. And we’ve seen a 73 percent reduction in shootings since the fellowship began.”

City of Fort Worth spokeswoman Michelle Gutt forwarded questions from the Star-Telegram sent to the Fort Worth Police Department.

Questions included: What city-run programs are in place to address street-level gun violence? Does the Office of Neighborhood Safety program in Richmond sound like something that Fort Worth would consider adopting? Or have city leaders looked into the program already? And Does Fort Worth have a gang or gun problem?

Lt. Brandon O’Neil said there is an initiative in the city that involves “working with a group of people to bring resources into the community that several persons with criminal history are assisting with.”

He said it was too premature to give more details about the program.

Current programs, he said, include Crime Stoppers, school resource officers, career days at schools and the Clergy and Police Alliance, which is a coalition of pastors who work with police to “serve the citizens of Fort Worth.”

And does Fort Worth have a gang or gun problem?

“Are there gang members or offenses committed with a gun. Yes,” O’Neil said. “Any offense committed based on gang affiliation or with a gun is a problem.”

At least 43 cities across the country have either adopted the Office of Neighborhood Safety or have considered it, according to Butt, Richmond’s mayor.

Vaughn and Houston hope to see more cities adopt this program.

“I believe when (healthy communities) are able to see or meet some of these young people — who are often viewed as monsters — they’ll get to know them and see them as young people who are just trying to figure out how to survive the best way they know how,” Houston said. “I believe anybody from any walk of life can sit down with these young people and find commonality. They just need a chance.”

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