Stopping Gun Violence, One Youth at a Time

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salinas town

Salinas, Cal., has seen a drop in annual shootings since launching the Ceasefire program. Photo by Julie Reynolds Martinez./The Imprint

In the agricultural swath of coastal California known as the Salinas Valley, for decades, youth violence has topped the area’s list of most pressing problems.

A dozen years ago, the region led the state in youth homicides per capita.

Most years, violence in Monterey County is fueled almost entirely by long-running warfare between rival rural gangs — a deeply entrenched, multigenerational tragedy that to many here has long seemed impossible to overcome.

When the rest of the nation saw steady drops in both violent and juvenile crime in the decades since the 1960s, Salinas did not.

But in 2009, there was reason to hope.

Ceasefire, a promising intervention first developed in Boston in the 1990s, was coming to town.

With buy-in from the mayor and community leaders, the program was up and running by January 2010.

The results were almost immediate. In a city where shots were fired at another human being an average of two to three times a week, the streets were suddenly, oddly silent.

Weeks passed, then months, with no shootings.

In summer, guns were again raised, as opposing youth gangs retaliated in back-and-forth skirmishes. But by year’s end, the annual total of shootings had plummeted by 50  percent — a remarkable turnaround for what had seemed an intractable problem.

police chief

Retired Salinas Police Chief, Kelly McMillin. Photo courtesy of The Imprint

Retired police chief Kelly McMillin oversaw his department’s participation in Ceasefire when he was deputy chief in 2010. In an interview with The Imprint, McMillin said there were two elements central to the program’s early success: Most of the young people involved were on probation or parole, so officers could order them to participate. And nonprofit community agencies — groups that did not represent law enforcement — played a central role.

He described the combination of accountability and support as police “leading the horse to water,” while social workers, mental health providers and employment specialists motivated them to drink.

“It’s well-known that if violent young men are offered a legitimate opportunity to participate in society in a meaningful way, they will step away from violence,” McMillin said. “We proved this in Salinas.”

Today, Ceasefire — and a related program called Advance Peace — are credited with keeping shooting numbers low in this California farm town, even as violence has increased elsewhere in the state.

Group Violence Intervention

Officially called the Group Violence Intervention, the Ceasefire strategy is taught and promoted across the country by the National Network for Safe Communities based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Police and community leaders from dozens of cities have been trained in the program.

Ceasefire’s “carrot-and-stick” approach begins with a deep-dive data analysis and interviews with cops and community members about who is actually likely to fire a gun in a city, county or region. Even in cities as large as Chicago, it typically turns out to be a very small number of people, and they are usually young adults.

Stockton is another California farm town plagued by youth shootings.

City analysts there found that of its 320,000 residents, only around 250 were identified as being at high risk of committing violence. In Stockton, these were mostly people in their 20s, though some were younger. In nearby Salinas, the high-risk group has ranged in age from the early 20s to as young as 13.

Once these high-risk individuals are identified, police and community members begin to work with them.

Central to the Ceasefire intervention is a “call-in” — a group dialogue with a community’s most violent young people. The toughest felons have been brought to tears at these meetings as mothers, EMTs and others describe how gun violence has hurt them.

But the goal is not to shame participants or try to scare them straight. After they hear about the impact of their crimes, social workers and volunteers swoop in to offer help in their everyday lives.

Volunteers find tutors to help siblings stay in school, or offer housing help to parents so a child won’t feel pressured to sell drugs to pay rent for the family.

But the assistance is conditional. If a participant doesn’t turn away from gun violence, police don’t hesitate to make an arrest.

A “targeted law enforcement response” is needed, McMillin said, to reinforce the Ceasefire message that is, in essence: “We are here to help and support you in leading a nonviolent life. But participating in violence now and going forward will be dealt with swiftly and surely by the enforcement community.”

Some young people say the program gives them cover — an acceptable way to slip out of pressure to commit crimes with peers or gangs who don’t want the additional scrutiny that Ceasefire participants attract.

In an interview, one young person said his “call-in” was the first time in his life he felt his community cared about him. He asked not to be named because the meetings are confidential.

“I’m going to take them up on some of their offers,” he said, which in his case included job training and helping his family avoid eviction.

‘Focused Deterrence’

Salinas wasn’t the only city to see immediate results from Ceasefire. Research has shown impressive results from its juvenile crime-fighting approach, a strategy criminologists call “focused deterrence.”

2016 paper by USAID compared studies of 14 similar programs and found that the focused deterrence method had a “strong” impact on reducing street violence. It was also cited as having “the largest direct impact on crime and violence, by far, of any intervention in this report.”

Oakland’s Ceasefire program began in 2007, becoming more prominent in the city six years later, according to a recent article in The San Francisco ChronicleA 2019 law school review titled “A Case Study in Hope,” credited the program with cutting the city’s annual shootings and homicides by half since its gearing up roughly a decade ago.

But the newspaper found that after the program went mostly dark over the past year of pandemic, violence has surged in Oakland.

Stockton has shown steady success with its Ceasefire program for more than a decade. In 2019, the city took on 101 “high-risk clients,” mostly gang-involved youth.

Since then, according to city data, 15 have committed new crimes, representing a 10 percent recidivism rate, well below the rates for most adults released from state prisons.

High-risk “clients” in Stockton received an array of services, from help with jobs and housing to food assistance. Over the first eight months of the year, unemployment among young adult participants fell 78 percent, city officials say.

The city estimates that by keeping people out of prisons, jails and hospitals, it actually saves $9.6 million per year, while the state saves roughly $425 million.

Stockton stands out because it has made Ceasefire and a related street outreach program a permanent part of its local government — its Office of Violence Prevention is housed in the city manager’s office.

Despite its early success, with lagging political will and waning funds, Salinas stopped holding Ceasefire call-ins by 2016. Former Mayor Dennis Donohue, a strong Ceasefire proponent, left in 2012.

McMillin retired four years later, and the new mayor — Joe Gunter, a former Salinas police officer — wasn’t as interested in pursuing the federal grants needed.

When the Money Ran Out’

In Salinas, “when the money ran out, the effort stopped and violence crept back up,” McMillin said in a recent interview with The Imprint.

For several years after the Ceasefire call-ins ended, violent crime again spiked, reaching a new city record in 2015 of 40 murders.

McMillin still argues that police participation is crucial, but Salinas has now taken a slightly different tack: more “carrot” and less “stick.” So far, it appears to be working as well as the original Ceasefire did.

Jose Arreola, the city’s Community Safety administrator, said Salinas is now using a related strategy modeled after Advance Peace, developed in the Bay Area city of Richmond and now used in neighboring Oakland and nearby Stockton.

While it employs Ceasefire’s tactic of identifying those young people most likely to fire guns and surrounding them with social supports, it does not partner with law enforcement.

And unlike Ceasefire, this program “is completely voluntary,” Arreola said, offering people ages 13 through 24 “new opportunities and goal development.”

Overall, the city has continued to see steady reductions in violence. Rates of violent assaults on youth — which include everything from murder to fighting in public — fell 60 percent between 2006 and 2015, and have continued to drop, records show.

When murders in California increased during the pandemic shutdown of 2020, headlines reported the shocking rise in violence, often with little context or mention of the fact that the year before, the state’s violent crime had previously hit its lowest rate since the late 1960s.

Nonetheless, in Salinas, where youth violence prevention programs have been relied upon for nearly 10 years, violent crime and homicides did not increase last year. Police data show the city had eight murders in 2020, the same as in 2019.

Overall violent crime has also dropped significantly in the city, from 6,149 incidents in 2009 to 4,380 in 2020.

Law enforcement officials and local residents attribute this drop to a regional gang truce that’s been in effect for the past few years. But locals also credit the city’s focused outreach strategies, a conclusion supported by the county’s Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, a coalition of more than 60 nonprofit and government agencies focused on a single mission: to reduce youth and gang violence.

None of these violence reduction strategies are designed to fix the complex root causes of youth violence, nor do they address contributing conditions like poverty, racial inequality and overcrowded housing.

And when it comes to gun violence, any city’s success can be tenuous at best — just last week in Salinas, two people in their 30s were killed in a midday shooting, and police are still looking for suspects.

But proponents say that simply lowering the number of shootings has a profound effect on communities like Salinas, that are repeatedly traumatized by gang violence. A pause in the bloodshed allows entire communities to heal and recover.

Longtime Salinas resident and community alliance member Rosemary Soto said she acknowledges that Ceasefire did help Salinas get on track, but she much prefers the Advance Peace approach.

“There is value in tamping down flames to get control of a fire, and I do recognize there’s a specific population Ceasefire may have some level of effectiveness with,” she said. “But it’s punitive and law enforcement-heavy.”

The Advance Peace program, in contrast, addresses young people’s long-term needs by helping them develop and stick to tailored, individual “life map” plans that are supported by a team of outreach workers.

In essence, it’s a more lasting, public-health approach, Soto said.

“It’s holistic and it embraces healing.”

For additional reading on community violence intervention programs around the country, please see the reports, videos and resource material from the Aug. 18-19, 2021 Webinar “Gun Violence and Public Health” series organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.

Julie Reynolds Martinez, a writer for The Imprint, is a John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This story, originally published in The Imprint, is reprinted here through the Solutions Journalism Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to spread rigorous reporting about responses to problems.

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