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Richmond attempts holistic strategy to address gun violence

An illustration of a pastor speaking with four individuals.
(Illustration/photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This story is part of the series " Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence." During the past four months, VPM News reporters have spoken with city and school officials, support organizations, community members, and the family and friends of slain young people in Richmond. This is what they learned.

Pastor Ralph Hodge is in his sanctuary at Second Baptist Church along Idlewood Avenue in Richmond. He’s cheerful and ready to talk about his church’s various programs. There’s the rain garden to grow food and manage runoff from their parking lot or their work as a COVID-19 vaccine community hub, which garnered a commendation from the General Assembly this year.

The SBC congregation stays busy, but it’s not all cheerful work. 

Hodge said a murder-suicide rocked the church in November 2020, and less than a year later, it happened again. 

“Four people’s lives lost to gun violence,” Hodge said. “You had a connection of gang violence, access to guns, domestic violence, suicide, trauma, all caught up in six months' time, and four families devastated.” 

He said the congregation came together, supporting the families and friends of the people killed. They even helped set up a college fund for a baby whose parents died in the violence. 

Hodge said he became a pastor because he believes everyone has a purpose and an ability to improve themselves and their community. That belief frames his outlook on gun violence, too. 

“My ministry has been, kinda tell folks, ‘Hey, God has a plan for your life, and it’s to build your life up and to build your community up,’” Hodge said. 

Since 2020, Hodge has advocated with the group Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities to change the city’s approach to gun violence prevention, focusing more on data, credible messengers and, critically, offers of help with finding work, a new living situation and much more. He was involved in the planning process that resulted in the city’s Gun Violence Prevention and Intervention framework. 

The Gun Violence Prevention and Intervention framework

The GVPI framework was released in April 2022. It’s holistic, encompassing programs and people from the city’s Department of Human Services, VCU Health, the Richmond Police Department and a constellation of community organizations.  

The planning process was broad, too, including 48 representatives from those groups and more, including Hodge. He’d been advocating alongside RISC for the city to adopt a program out of John Jay College in New York called Group Violence Intervention. The program reduced youth homicides by more than 60% in Boston two decades ago and its use has yielded positive results in other cities, too. 

“In August of 2019, we did about 50 or 60 house meetings around the city,” Hodge said while discussing RISC. “We have a person who leads it with about 10 people [from the neighborhood].” 

Things like housing and education were discussed, “and then, for the very first time in a while, gun violence had come up.” 

Gun homicides in Richmond decreased from 2017 to 2018 and though they were up slightly by the end of 2019, Hodge said he didn’t expect to hear that coming from people around the city. 

“But that’s what they’re saying at house meetings,” he said. 

The city did not adopt the John Jay College program — as RISC had hoped, though GVPI has distinct similarities, including the use of recent data and intelligence to pinpoint where in the city gun violence is happening. 

“Once you figure that out, then you target intervention to those who are most likely at risk of doing crime,” Hodge said. 

One of the framework’s main acknowledgements is that gun violence is a reality in Richmond — echoing a 2021 emergency declaration from city leaders. And that means gun violence can’t just be prevented in Richmond. The ongoing violence requires active interventions with both the people shooting and being shot. 

Beyond Project Exile

In the late 1990s, Richmond approached gun violence from a law enforcement-centered perspective with Project Exile. 

The U.S. attorney-piloted program started with incarceration: An illegally owned or obtained gun gets you five years in federal prison, miles and miles from Richmond. The approach was bolstered by billboards, bus wraps and police delivering stern warnings during press conferences.  

The program resulted in hundreds of convictions, and Richmond’s violent crime rate fell sharply in less than two years. Project Exile was lauded by politicians and local media, but more recent research has called the program’s merits into question. Gun homicides dropped in other cities with high homicide rates in 1998, not just in Richmond. 

But Hodge said incarceration-based intervention is not what Richmond needed then — or now. 

“You’re separating them from their families, and they probably already have issues, and then think that somehow they’re gonna get rehabilitated? That’s not gonna happen,” he said. 

Richmond Community Safety Coordinator Sam Brown said that incarceration is not the city’s goal. So, its strategy has changed. 

“This time around, we want to respond to those issues and elements that cause gun violence, as opposed to just responding to the gun violence in a vacuum,” Brown said.  

Credible messengers

Brown, who took on the responsibility of overseeing GVPI’s implementation in January, said credible messengers are central to the city’s strategy for preventing gun violence. They speak with victims of gun violence, those who’ve committed gun violence and those at risk of being affected by gun violence. 

“A great wing of our community outreach are credible messengers, these community members who come from the communities that they're asking questions of,” Brown said. “They go back to these communities and ask their friends, their family members, their extended family members, ‘Hey, what do you think is going on? How can we respond to this?’” 

Sometimes a credible messenger is a faith leader like Hodge, and sometimes they’re a less expected figure, like celebrity chef Sammy Davis Jr. The police department’s RVA C.O.O.K.S. program gives kids in detention centers and other vulnerable situations an opportunity to learn life skills from Davis, who was born in Richmond and grew up stealing to stave off hunger. 

Other times, a credible messenger is a gun violence survivor at a hospital bedside.  

Rachelle Hunley is the assistant director of Community Violence Initiatives at VCU Health. She supervises two long-running programs, Bridging the Gap and Emerging Leaders, which both now fall under GVPI’s umbrella of initiatives. They’re targeted at survivors of violence, including gun violence, as well as residents of “our most impacted communities,” Hunley said. 

Gunshot survivors are often introduced to those programs while still recovering in the hospital. VCU Health works with three part-time peer support specialists: Two are gun-violence survivors and one is a mother who nearly lost her son to gun violence. 

“What we were finding was, there was a lot of emotional support needed at the bedside. And sometimes, it's hard to establish rapport quickly with someone if you don't have anything to relate to them about,” Hunley said. 

Zanda Miller, who oversees VCU’s interventionists, said the peer support specialists are uniquely positioned to establish that rapport. They can provide survivors with information on other programs and wraparound services provided by the organization and other city organizations. 

“If they're feeling overwhelmed, they don't want to ... push forward feeling sad, depressed, they have someone that they can talk to — someone that can listen to them,” Miller said. “Someone who can empathize with them, someone who's been there, done that.” 

Once enrolled in a program, interventionists help members according to need — such as housing or food. Recently, Miller said interventionists helped one woman find work. 

“We provided some bridging for her,” Miller said. “She needed some funding, money for gas, so she can get to and from work until she gets her first check.” 

Police involvement

Richmond police are heavily involved in the city’s strategy to combat gun violence, but said their approach emphasizes collaboration with credible messengers whenever possible. They organize a range of community and youth activities, from neighborhood pop-ups to the cooking classes with Davis, either as intervention or prevention tactics. 

Maj. Ronnie Armstead said those programs emphasize officers’ connections to visible community groups, working with faith leaders, counselors and more. He said increasing trust helps police direct resources in the aftermath of a shooting. 

“We do look at ... who this individual hung with, who his friends are, you know, both on the suspect side and the victim side, and we try to interject into these groups, apply resources,” Armstead said. 

They’re taking more direct approaches to intervention, too. 

Cpt. Daniel Minton, of community youth and intervention services at RPD, explained Richmond Public Schools’ "gaggle alerts," sent if certain red flags are detected on a school district-issued computer. 

“If [a student is] typing on the computer, talking about weapons, suicide, acts of violence or showing pictures that correspond with that, as well, the school system gets an alert. They contact us, we follow up,” he said.  

That results in a house visit from officers and credible messengers. 

Brown, the community safety coordinator, stresses that interactions like this are followed by offers of wraparound services — usually provided by a community organization. 

Operation Red Ball, a high-profile effort by RPD to arrest people who “will shoot other people” that have been identified by data and police intelligence, is another part of the city’s effort to reduce gun violence. The same information used to direct resources to the most high-risk areas is used to arrest people that RPD deem most threatening. 

“We're going after those trigger pullers throughout the city, and especially in the Big Six,” Armstead said in July, referencing the city’s largest public housing communities — Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb courts. 

The program is controversial for targeting those communities, where data from the GVPI planning process shows gun violence is most concentrated. 

These are the parts of the city most in need of intervention and services. According to RPD and city officials, arrests must be made as well. But experts have said that policing efforts targeted at underserved communities can create the appearance of profiling. 

“You figured out who the folk were at highest risk, and what did you do? You just arrested them,” Hodge said, though he admits arrests in connection with investigations were likely justified.  

A heavy police hand is one of Hodge’s concerns with Operation Red Ball — and with the city’s approach to addressing gun violence as a whole. 

Hodge said GVPI, the intervention program out of New York, seeks to establish strong relationships among police and community groups. It relies on a warning of punishment from law enforcement, followed by genuine offers of support from credible messengers. 

Interestingly, prior to releasing Richmond’s GVPI framework, Mayor Levar Stoney publicly rebuked RISC in February for its intense advocacy for the framework, arguing the city’s approach needed time and deliberation. The city was critical of the John Jay College program’s perceived connections with police, and said it wanted to take a more holistic approach. 

Hodge said meeting people where they are and filling their needs is the only way forward. 

“Lovingly, compassionately, we have to provide, the community as a whole has to provide intervention,” Hodge said. 

Read more stories from the series "Another Way: How one Virginia city reckons with gun violence."

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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