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Is a cash-for-peace strategy the way to stop gun crime in U.S. cities?

A program in Richmond, Calif., that pays men who are pulling triggers to put down their weapons is serving as a model for other U.S. cities looking to tackle rising levels of gun crime.

Operation Peacemaker in California serves as a model for other cities

A worker walks past a makeshift memorial in honour of a slain New York City police officer on Oct. 25. Some cities in the U.S. are looking to copy a program in Richmond, Calif., to tackle gun crimes. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Eric Welch got shot when he was a teenager in his Richmond, Calif., neighbourhood, and after that, his life started spinning out of control, he says. Welch picked up a gun, he was angry and he wanted revenge. He declines to talk about whether he ever used the weapon.

"My life was pretty much just running the streets, trying to hustle and bustle money," Welch said in an interview.

By 22, he was behind bars, serving time for illegal gun possession and other crimes. When he got out of jail, he had no job and no vision for his future beyond his violence-plagued neighbourhood.

Fast-forward five years and Welch, 27, is now studying political science and pre-law at Florida A & M University. What happened in the meantime was a program called Operation Peacemaker. It changed his life.

Richmond's government launched the 18-month program in 2010 in response to years of rising gun violence. It is multi-faceted, but what tends to stand out the most is the stipend. Cash-for-peace is what the program is sometimes called.

The fellows, as they are known, can get up to $1,000 US per month if they drop their weapons and follow a "life map." They are only eligible for the cash after six months and only if they make progress on their life map goals, which can include finding a job, addiction treatment, or whatever they decide they need to do to get their life on a better track.
Eric Welch, pictured meeting former Congressman George Miller on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., completed the Operation Peacemaker program and now attends college in Florida. (Eric Welch)

Operation Peacemaker has gained national attention and cities across the U.S. are considering copying it. Washington, D.C., struggling to halt a rise in gun crimes and homicides this year, is one of them. The capital has had 131 murders so far, up more than 48 per cent from last year. The mayor, police chief, community leaders and concerned residents have spent many hours discussing what to do.

Program is more than just cash

Councillor Kenyan McDuffie looked at the Richmond model and was impressed by it. He thinks it could work in Washington and he incorporated it into proposed legislation along with other crime-fighting measures.

In an interview in his city hall office, McDuffie said he thinks D.C. should focus on innovative ideas that get at the root causes of crime, efforts that focus on prevention and intervention, and that's what the Richmond program does.

He knows the idea of paying criminals rubs some people the wrong way.

"My response to that is the cost of the Richmond model pales in comparison to the criminal justice system," he said. Plus, "This isn't solely about a cash stipend." 

DeVone Boggan, the man responsible for Operation Peacemaker, explained in a phone interview how it works and why he believes it's successful. It targets the most lethal guys currently on the street, he said, the ones responsible for pulling the triggers. Not all of them agree to participate when approached, but most of them do.

Staff work closely with the men to help them with accomplishing their goals and accessing social services. There is a lot of mentorship built into the program. Those looking for work can get paid internships at businesses willing to take them on. Their salaries are subsidized by the program so it doesn't cost the employers a dime.
A program pioneered in California can give up to $1,000 US per month to participants if they drop their weapons and follow a 'life map.' Part of the rationale is that in the long run, it saves money compared with the costs of the criminal justice system. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Operation Peacemaker also involves taking trips out of state and even out of the country.

"When we leave the country, these young men are travelling with people that they are trying to kill," said Boggan. "I think that's the most provocative, most profound and most transformative opportunity that these young men have access to through this fellowship."

Life-changing trips

Welch backed that up. Out on the streets, he and the other fellows were enemies, but on those trips, they got to know each other, and to their own surprise, found they liked each other, he said.

He also agreed the trips, not the cash stipend, were instrumental in changing his life.

"That was pretty much my turning point," Welch said about a trip to Washington in early 2009 that included watching President Barack Obama's inauguration. A later trip to Florida further inspired him. It included a visit to a college campus. When Welch got back to Richmond, he added college to his life map.

"It opened up my eyes to different things… There was more out there other than just Richmond, California," he said about the travel.

The cash stipend was helpful, said Welch. He needed the money, but what he also needed was someone pushing him and giving him experiences that created a vision for his future.

Making better choices

"You're not paying me not to commit crimes. You're giving me an incentive on my journey to help me do certain things that I would need money to do," he said. "It's almost like an allowance." He bought clothes for a job interview, for example, Welch said.

Boggan says Operation Peacemaker saves lives and money in the long run. The city pays about $980,000 US for the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which runs the program, and private fundraising helps fund the cash stipends, trips and internships, up to almost $1 million per year.
Eric Welch, pictured at Union College in Albany, N.Y., in the fall of 2014. Welch currently attends college in Florida and is studying politics. (Eric Welch)

In the last five years, an average of $68,000 US was spent on the cash stipends. Not a lot of money, Boggan says, and those who receive it, deserve it. He argues that VIPs are paid to sit around and talk about how to solve crime problems, so why not pay the men who have the real expertise? The men who can truly be part of the solution, if they are properly engaged and valued, he says.

The program helps them make better, healthier decisions and when they do that, the whole community benefits and it reduces violence, Boggan said. In the last five years, gun homicides and assaults have fallen significantly, and the statistics also show that past fellows are staying out of trouble. 

"It is in our city's best interest that we find different, robust, responsive, credible and legitimate — in the eyes of these young men — legitimate alternatives to help them be successful," he said. "Because at the end of the day this city, or any city dealing with this issue, cannot be healthy if these young men are not healthy."

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