Richmond leaders consider gun violence program at meeting

George Copeland Jr. | 5/23/2024, 6 p.m.
Potential solutions for gun violence in Richmond were shared with hopeful and current city leadership Monday evening during a roundtable …
From left, RISC Co-President Marvin Gilliam, REAL Life founder and Director Sarah Scarbrough, REAL Life Coach Maurice Washington and Hopewell Deputy Police Chief Donald Reid discuss ways to reduce gun violence at Third Street AME Bethel Church. George Copeland Jr./Richmond Free Press

Potential solutions for gun violence in Richmond were shared with hopeful and current city leadership Monday evening during a roundtable at Third Street Bethel AME Church.

Over 120 residents filled the church’s Bethel Center as mayoral candidates, including Andreas D. Addison and Bridgette Whitaker, Richmond City Council members Ellen F. Robertson and Nicole Jones, and City Council candidates Tony Miller, Tavares Floyd and more learned about the program from those who’ve helped implement it in other cities.

The roundtable was hosted by Richmond Involved to Strengthen Our Communities, a faith-based group made up of 25 congregations in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico who have advocated for the Group Violence Intervention framework, a nationally developed program aimed at addressing this issue through identifying, intervening in the lives of and supporting those most likely to be involved in gun violence.

Members of RISC saw the event as an opportunity to champion the program after previous discussions with Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s office failed to gain traction.

“Since the current leadership doesn’t want to listen, we’re looking at the future leadership of Richmond and we’re pleading with you, I would say, we’re begging you — hear us tonight,”

Second Baptist Church Pastor and RISC Member Ralph Hodge said. “We’re tired of the gun violence in our communities, We’re tired of having funerals.”

Questions from candidates and officials were answered by a panel of GVI officials, including Sarah Scarbrough, founder and director of REAL Life, GVI Life Coach Maurice Washington, and Hopewell Deputy Police Chief Donald Reid.

The importance of strong relationships and connections for program partners, city leaders and the community were repeatedly emphasized in response to questions about GVI. Panelists also stressed the need for engagement in ensuring the program’s success, addressed concerns about overpolicing and explained it could integrate with similar initiatives in Richmond.

The three panelists have been key parts in Hopewell’s adoption of GVI in 2023 through a partnership with REAL Life, a group that works to reduce gun violence, provide recovery houses for the formerly incarcerated and those facing addiction and homelessness and other initiatives.

Hopewell and REAL Life became involved after efforts by RISC to convince Richmond leadership to adopt the program attracted outside interest.

The result is Hopewell’s version of GVI, the SAF — Safe, Alive and Free — program, which focuses on intervention in the lives of at-risk individuals through life coaches and mentors, providing support that deters people from escalating conflicts and helps them avoid the personal and systemic problems that lead to gun violence. The panelists’ enthusiasm for the program and the benefits seen so far was clear.

“It is my mission through this program to ensure that no other children have to bury their father,” said Mr. Washington, a former participant in REAL Life’s program who later began working with the group.

“Although we cannot put a blanket over gun violence, we can make a dramatic reduction.”

Hopewell has seen a 45% decrease in shooting injuries or deaths from June 2023 to March compared to June 2022 to March 2023 since the program’s start, according

to REAL Life. Richmond’s Gun Violence Prevention framework, launched last year, takes a similar approach in trying to address root causes of gun violence in the city through resolving community needs and providing outreach to the most impacted groups in the city.

However, panelists and RISC members still saw gaps in Richmond’s current initiative that needed solutions, particularly when it came to its focus on youths.

“While middle school programs are so critical and so important, that is not pulling guns out of the hands of the average-age shooter,” Ms. Scarbrough said. “Focusing on and identifying individuals who are the most likely is a missing component.”

Eighteen homicides have been reported as of April this year, according to the Richmond Police Department, with eight shootings occurring within a two-week span. Another gun-related death was reported hours before the roundtable on East Brookland Park Boulevard.

A GVI program already is in the works through a partnership between REAL Life and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Life coaches located in specific public housing communities and with relevant history and experience are currently being sought, selected and trained. They will provide support and guidance to those most at risk of involvement in gun violence, with hopes that the program could be expanded throughout Richmond.

Mayoral candidates didn’t share their commitments to GVI, but will make their thoughts known at a RISC forum scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 29. A similar forum for City Council candidates also is planned for the fall.