Fresno should aid pro­gram that tar­gets gang vi­o­lence

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY MAREK WARSZAWSKI [email protected]­nobee.com

Gang-bang­ing in Fresno no longer pays. Be­cause of this most gang mem­bers, in­clud­ing those who com­mit the bulk of the city’s shoot­ings, can be steered onto a dif­fer­ent path.

That’s my take­away from a con­ver­sa­tion with Aaron Foster, a re­formed gang mem­ber (“One of the most vi­o­lent peo­ple you’ll ever meet”) who’s now a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer for Faith in the Val­ley.

“Those guys live with their mom – they don’t have no money. They don’t have money for bul­lets half the time. See them on their mugshots when they get ar­rested? See what they have on? They don’t have noth­ing that looks promis­ing,” Foster said.

“Cops used to catch th­ese guys and they’d have $10,000 or $15,000 in their pocket. Now they’re go­ing to jail with $10. Ask a cop. The fund­ing isn’t there.

“They’re only gang­bang­ing be­cause they have noth­ing else to do. What’s the sec­ond op­tion?”

Foster is among those try­ing to pro­vide a sec­ond op­tion for Fresno’s most trig­ger-happy cit­i­zens. Its name is Ad­vance Peace, a pro­gram for re­duc­ing gang-re­lated gun vi­o­lence that Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno City Coun­cil must find a way to fit into the 2019-20 bud­get.

In fact, I’d ar­gue city lead­ers can’t af­ford not to. Not for $300,000 per year, part of a five-year, $1.5 mil­lion commitment. Which is matched by the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s own private funds.

In Fresno, as in many Amer­i­can cities, the ma­jor­ity of all homi­cides and shoot­ings in­volve a gang mem­ber as sus­pect or vic­tim. Fresno police Lt. Mark Hud­son es­ti­mated that num­ber “at 55% to 60%, de­pend­ing on the year.”

What’s more, the gang mem­bers who pull the trig­ger are of­ten known to police. But the space be­tween know­ing who did it and be­ing able to prove who did it leads to un­solved crimes and more shoot­ings.

AD­VANCE PEACE PLAN

Ad­vance Peace takes a rad­i­cal ap­proach to break­ing this cy­cle by ex­tin­guish­ing it at the source. Over the course of 18 months, pro­gram men­tors di­rectly in­ter­vene into the lives of the city’s most vi­o­lent young men.

“What I’ve come to learn is the in­di­vid­u­als who are at the cen­ter of firearm ac­tiv­ity aren’t be­ing en­gaged by any public sys­tem or com­mu­nity-based sys­tem of care, and that’s be­come prob­lem­atic,” said DeVone Bog­gan, the pro­gram’s founder and CEO. “By leav­ing them alone, al­low­ing them to be idle, this only feeds into the per­pet­u­a­tion of gun­fire.”

What makes Ad­vance Peace slightly con­tro­ver­sial – and draws most of the neg­a­tive head­lines – is that those en­rolled are given fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to stay out of trou­ble. (The to­tal stipend is $1,000 per month over nine months and comes from private fund­ing.) In truth, the money is only a small part of the equa­tion.

“Fel­lows” are given daily en­gage­ment by men­tors. This can come in the form of ed­u­ca­tion, in­for­mal coun­sel­ing or just friendly con­ver­sa­tion. To get them out of the ‘hood, they take group trips to San Fran­cisco or Los An­ge­les and some­times go out of state and even abroad. (Again, no tax­payer money is used.)

A trip might con­sist of a meet­ing with a mayor or univer­sity pres­i­dent and spend­ing an af­ter­noon on cam­pus au­dit­ing a class. It might in­volve feed­ing the home­less, work­ing with the elderly, talk­ing to kids at a youth cen­ter or vis­it­ing an amuse­ment park.

Then there’s what Bog­gan calls “restora­tive jus­tice ex­er­cises.” Which es­sen­tially means bring­ing to­gether those re­spon­si­ble for gun vi­o­lence in their cities with the fam­i­lies and friends of vic­tims

from other cities.

“They can hear the pain, the an­guish, the fear, the rage and even the hope that many of th­ese folks have for them,” Bog­gan said.

RICHMOND EXAMPLE

A pre­cur­sor of Ad­vance Peace be­gan in Richmond in 2010. It proved so suc­cess­ful in re­duc­ing that Bay Area city’s rate of homi­cides and shoot­ings that Sacra­mento and Stock­ton each hopped on board. Ac­cord­ing to Bog­gan, 43 other cities have “reached out.” Ad­vo­cates in Fresno, with 22 homi­cides so far this year, were some of the first.

“The rea­son we leaned in to look­ing at Fresno, even con­sid­ered it, came from the com­mu­nity,” Bog­gan said. “Th­ese folks have been re­lent­less. Fol­low­ing me around. Knock­ing on my door. Tex­ting me. Call­ing me. Email­ing me. They have been re­lent­less in their pur­suit to do some­thing dif­fer­ent to help curb the sig­nif­i­cant gun-shed you all have had in that city.”

Faith lead­ers and com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers like Foster made a pas­sion­ate case for Ad­vance Peace dur­ing Thurs­day’s Fresno City Coun­cil meet­ing. Af­ter hear­ing their pleas, Coun­cilmem­ber Miguel Arias in­di­cated he will move to ap­pro­pri­ate $300,000 for the pro­gram at Tues­day’s bud­get hear­ing with rev­enues from le­gal cannabis as the fu­ture fund­ing source. Coun­cilmem­ber Nel­son Es­parza also spoke in fa­vor.

Arias told me af­ter­ward he be­lieves he has the nec­es­sary four coun­cil votes, plus Brand’s sup­port.

Let’s hope he’s right. It would be naive to think Ad­vance Peace will halt, or even dras­ti­cally re­duce, gang-re­lated homi­cides and shoot­ings in Fresno. But what if it pre­vents a hand­ful of shoot­ings, or just one homi­cide?

Hard to ar­gue that wouldn’t be worth $300,000 in a $1.187 bil­lion city bud­get.

Be­sides more lives, what do we have to lose?

CRAIG KOHLRUSS ck­[email protected]­nobee.com

Aaron Foster, a re­formed gang mem­ber, is now a south­west Fresno com­mu­nity ad­vo­cate for a pro­gram called “Ad­vance Peace” that aims to curb gun vi­o­lence through one-on-one men­tor­ing.

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