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No violence interrupters hired in Richmond; critics question 'disrespectful' salary

Richmond, Virginia Generic
Posted at 6:23 PM, Jun 15, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- It's been five months since Richmond city leaders announced a measure to bring crime-fighting citizens into the city's most at-risk communities to curb shootings and try to save lives, but little progress has been made in implementing the program.

Long-time Richmonder, Marquis Trent, said there's a desperate need for more gun violence prevention across the city after Richmond saw a record-high number of murders in 2021.

It's a mission that hits close to home for Trent as he used to be surrounded by trouble in the inner city.

“I really got pulled into the streets, the drugs, the alcohol, and later the violence definitely got involved," Trent said. “I had my own near-death experience multiple times, have been shot at multiple times.”

Trent said he was able to turn his life around for the better by leaning into his faith in God and positive influences. Now, he hopes so-called violence interrupters will help do the same for others.

Back in February, Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith announced plans to use federal dollars to hire violence interrupters in an effort to reduce gun violence.

So what is a violence interrupter?

“A violence interrupter is a non-police officer. It's a regular citizen who is intended to go out into the community, find potential violence scenarios, and then interrupt them, intercede before a dangerous situation becomes violent," said VCU policing researcher, Dr. William Pelfrey.

Pelfrey has researched similar programs already implemented in Chicago and Baltimore.

He said the perfect candidate would likely have a criminal history and have the ability to connect with individuals headed down a potentially violent path.

"Usually, they have a lot of credibility in the community," Pelfrey said. "So they're community leaders, sometimes they are former gang members, sometimes they are people who have changed the path of their life substantially."

Richmond City Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert, who represents the Northside, said she would be interested in candidates familiar with the city's neighborhood dynamics since communities on the Northside, East End, and Southside all face unique challenges.

"It's okay if you have a felony label. We want individuals that know the youth and can be an influence on them," Lambert said. "We're looking for someone who is from the community that can help us rebuild and reshape the community."

In February, city officials said violence interrupters would be paid between $49,000 to $68,000.

The current job posting lists the salary range at $31,000 to $47,000.

Trent said that's not nearly enough money for a job that puts your life at risk.

“$31,000? I couldn't even believe that you even said that to be honest because that's disrespectful," said Trent. "I would up the salary a little more because of the reality of the threat of violence."

In Baltimore, where a similar program operates, NPR reported three violence interrupters were killed in a little over a year.

“You are making alliances with people who are sometimes dangerous, and if they ever feel like you betrayed them, bad things can happen to you or sometimes even to your family," said Pelfrey.

As of June 15, Richmond Police said none of its three violence interrupters positions have been filled, even though the posting said it closed in April. Police confirmed that 37 applications have been submitted.

CBS 6 asked Councilwoman Lambert where the city stood in its search and hiring process.

“Actually, that’s a good question, and at the next public safety meeting, I’m calling for a discussion on what the plan is," Lambert responded.

The program previously received criticism from Richmond's police union which said it would hurt morale.

"It's a complete slap in the face to the police department. Regardless of whether it's grant money or not. The chief of police doesn't even realize how he just insulted his own police department," said the organization's leader, Sgt. Brendan Leavy.

Other critics have asked what data shows about the program's effectiveness and if enough research has been done. Pelfrey said citizens in Chicago have reported positive results, but solid numbers have been difficult to track.

“It’s really hard to study. If somebody is stopped or deterred from committing a violent act, there's no data, there's no record of it," Pelfrey said.

Meanwhile, Lambert said she's not concerned with the data.

“Folks say 'where’s the data?' To hell with the data. I don’t need data to know that whatever we’re pushing is to make a difference," Lambert said.

Lambert emphasized that while violence interrupters will partner with the police department, they are a separate entity and will not be viewed as an officer.

"It's a collaboration with all departments: community wealth building, social services, children and families. Gun violence impacts issues within our community. These traumatic situations take an all-hands-on-deck approach."

The city's job posting shows the position falls under the police department.

Pelfrey said he believed job progress of the employees will be tracked by logging and tracking communications, interactions, contacts, and mediation outcomes.

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