A fistfight in Richmond hardly rates notice in a city with perennially high homicide and assault rates. But on October 14, an old-school punch-out between rival gang members left a City Hall office splattered in blood and prompted a public feud between the police department and a city anti-violence agency. The fight and the feud also have put Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay in a tough spot as he tries to mediate a solution amid the harsh glare of the news media.
The dilemma for Lindsay is whether to support the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), which uses innovative methods to reach hard-bitten young men who are most at risk of being involved with violence, or police officers who claim the ONS has lost sight of its mission and that staffers have become too cozy with gang members.
The fistfight occurred around lunchtime on October 14 in the ONS' City Hall office when seven members of two rival street gangs showed up at the same time to pick up stipend checks for participating in a skills program called Operation Peacekeeper Fellowship. Several City Hall employees called 911 to report a woman screaming and multiple people fighting. Because of the location, police took the call very seriously and within two minutes six officers arrived to find the ONS' third-floor office in disarray. Furniture was knocked over and shards of broken dishes were scattered in the ONS break room. But most alarming was the amount of blood.
The lobby elevator and a discarded shirt were so bloodied that one veteran officer thought the source was a serious head wound. On the third floor, a bloody trail led from the elevator to the ONS office where officers found more splattered in the break room and on the clothing of several ONS staffers. The source was a single broken nose, according to ONS staffers, but there was enough of it that Crime Scene Cleaners, a company that typically cleans up homicide scenes, was called in to clean up the mess.
When ONS Director DeVone Boggan, who was not present during the fight, directed his staff to not reveal the names of the people involved in the fight, police officers, who wanted a full understanding of what had occurred, accused office staffers of hindering efforts to assure the safety of City Hall employees and the public. After the incident, an unknown police officer leaked a report to the press that detailed Boggan's refusal to cooperate, which started a minor media frenzy. Boggan refused to talk to the press immediately afterward, but staffers explained that they withheld the names of those involved in the fight in order to preserve the fragile trust that ONS had built up with the young men.
But just as the media interest began to die down, another report was leaked to the media. Three days before the fistfight, a sheriff's deputy investigating a report of a suspicious vehicle in unincorporated North Richmond observed what appeared to be two people engaged in a sex act in a City of Richmond car. It turned out to be a 43-year-old female who identified herself as an ONS "neighborhood change agent" and a 32-year-old gang member who is currently on federal probation. The woman told the deputy she was "checking her calendar" and her companion simply smiled and said, "Whatever she said is fine with me," according to the deputy's report. The incident is under administrative review and not the subject of a police investigation, according to Lindsay.
City officials also have been peppered with questions as to why the ONS was cutting checks for as much as $1,000 a month to gang members (the stipend money comes from foundations and corporate contributions, not taxpayers) and why staffers were being paid to fraternize with gang members. There also were questions about Boggan's judgment, considering the lackadaisical process for allowing feuding gang members, deemed to have a high potential for violence, to pick up their checks at the same time at City Hall. And why wasn't Boggan talking to the police or the press? Did he think his office had no accountability to anyone?
Boggan's self-imposed press blackout left Lindsay, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and several city councilmembers to handle damage control. McLaughlin and the majority of the council expressed support for the ONS, which, in the four years since it was initiated, has become a centerpiece of the city's community violence prevention programs. The ONS has partnered with numerous nonprofits and city agencies, including the police department, in a variety of programs that include substance abuse counseling, adult education, and re-entry assistance for men and women newly released from prison. "This program is using unconventional warfare to help people who live lives most of us can't begin to understand," Councilman Tom Butt said. "Do you wipe out a whole program just because it's not functioning perfectly?"
But when asked about Boggan's judgment, many elected officials said that's a matter for Lindsay to assess. However, Councilman Corky Booze, a Boggan critic, took a harder stance and called for the director's immediate dismissal. "Once you have taken a job with the city, your responsibility is to report any incidents of any kind," Booze said. "What kind of message does it send if you don't?"
Lindsay said Boggan has his support for now, but the ONS is scheduled to undergo a full audit and that Boggan and the program are not married. "No program should be built around one person," Lindsay said.
Boggan ended his press blackout last Friday. He said the fact that it wasn't a gunfight that erupted in City Hall was an accomplishment. He also said he was surprised to see press reports that he wasn't communicating with police and that he had obstructed the investigation. "I got up at 6 a.m. on Tuesday and I was blown away because 10 minutes after the incident, I was talking to [a police] commander and [a police] liaison," he said. However, he acknowledged that he had still not released the gang members' names. "I will say this: I don't condone my staff obstructing justice."
Boggan admitted that the process for issuing stipends to fellowship participants could be modified, though the ONS is involved in numerous programs and many people regularly visit the office. He said one solution would be to move the ONS out of City Hall.
Boggan also defended the practice of issuing monthly stipends of $350 to $1,000 to the gang members. The stipends are conditional on participants spending between 15 and 20 hours a week developing life skills such as job training, identifying education goals, developing parenting skills, and participating in conflict resolution and anger management courses. All participants vow to avoid gun-related activities, a vow that is overseen by police who are in regular communication with ONS staff.
Communication between the ONS and police department also has continued uninterrupted since the fistfight. Police Captain Mark Gagan said the department was investigating the press leaks and that the officer or officers responsible would be subject to disciplinary action. Several officers also said privately that there is still tension related to the incident.
Boggan, who often slips into street vernacular despite his middle-class upbringing and education, said he is still passionate about helping reduce violence in Richmond. "People will say I'm on crack," he said, "but I believe we can end this violence all together."