SAN ANTONIO – Many communities are looking inward for a solution to reduce gun violence. Representatives from one of the first places to use an out-of-the-box approach are advising communities to be deeply committed to doing the right thing if they want to see change.
Reformed criminal Sam Vaughn is leading an influential program in Richmond, California, hoping to reduce gun violence in communities across the nation.
Vaughn is the program manager for the City of Richmond’s Officer of Neighborhood Safety, which runs the city’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. The program involves reformed criminals that have become mentors to at-risk youths in communities where gun violence prevails.
“We were assigned to a specific location that had 50% of all of the violence, the gun violence, specifically in the City of Richmond,” Vaughn said. “And that was our first year on the ground. That was all we did, that one specific location. And in that specific location, everything dropped by about 75%.”
The program has evolved and grown since it started 11 years ago, but the mission remains the same -- changing the violent culture of a community.
“That was the introduction of love into that community from a government perspective. We went into the community. We apologize for the neglect, and I mean -- some may very well say the perpetuation of the violence from the government itself,” Vaughn said.
It took time for the community to trust the agents of change, but it made a difference, and in a few years, other communities noticed.
A study by the American Public Health Association found that Richmond’s gun violence from 2005 to 2016 dropped, and the program may have contributed to the decline.
Vaughn says those results and data have helped other cities adopt similar programs.
The City of San Antonio runs a similar program called Stand Up SA! The partnership with Cure Violence in Chicago treats violence as a disease.
Pastor Rodney McIntosh took the Richmond and San Antonio models and now leads VIP Fort Worth, a violence intervention and prevention program, which began right before the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that’s been the hardest thing for me is to get the community to trust us. And then again, getting the young people, the young fellows, to trust us,” McIntosh said.
It’s a slow process, but McIntosh hopes to show some progress in a few years. He spent a lot of the time convincing the community that they were not working with the police.
McIntosh leads a group of eight part-time staff members with their ears to the ground that step in to prevent fights among groups. He says one of the other challenges is finding people that are truly out of the gang life. “If you’ve been a part of this life, one foot in and one foot out don’t work. You have to let it be the transition out of this lifestyle,” McIntosh said.
He warns that it can be challenging to stay neutral and not get sucked into the issues or personal feelings they’re trying to solve. It takes a lot of training and commitment from mentors or agents in what feels like an overwhelming mission.
McIntosh says other communities in Texas have reached out for guidance on how to start their own programs.
Vaugh warns that communities will have a lot of pushback, and some will want them to fail. He says it’s deeply personal for him to ensure that his community prevails.
“Why am I risking it all for a community who doesn’t even care about themselves? And the answer is, yes, you’re risking it all for a community who doesn’t care about themselves because they have never been taught to care about themselves because nobody’s ever shown them they’ve given a damn about them,” Vaughn said.
He implores communities who want to give this out-of-the-box approach to gun violence to be fully dedicated to the war ahead.
“I beg of you do not start this process unless you are dedicated on seeing it all the way through,” he said.