By Em Holter, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Potential future and current Richmond leaders came together Monday night to learn more about a gun violence intervention initiative that proponents say could curb Richmond’s homicide rate.

Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Communities, or RISC, hosted a roundtable event at the Third Street AME Baptist Church in Jackson Ward to pitch the nationally recognized Group Violence Intervention initiative, a program that focuses on assigning life coaches to folks identified as most at-risk for experiencing or committing gun violence.

RISC is a faith-based nonprofit focused on community problems. It draws membership from 25 congregations in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. Two hundred members of RISC teamed up with the nonprofit REAL Life and members of the Hopewell Police Department to make a plea to mayoral candidates, City Council candidates and a few council members.

“Since the current leadership does not want to listen, we’re looking at the future leadership of Richmond. We’re pleading with you – I would say, we’re begging you, to hear us,” said Second Baptist Church South Richmond Pastor and RISC Co-President Ralph Hodge. “We believe this can change the city of Richmond.”

On April 18, the Richmond Police Department reported there had been 18 homicides in the city so far this year. Eight of those came in the two weeks following Easter. The victims included a 14-year-old and three 16-year-olds.

On Monday, hours before the roundtable discussion, the department reported a gun-related death on the 400 block of East Brookland Park Boulevard.

Sarah Scarborough, founder and director of REAL Life, said many of these deaths could have been prevented through the Gun Violence Intervention program.

The initiative focuses on meeting at-risk people where they are and getting involved before instances of violence can occur. This is done by sending out life coaches or peer mentors who have similar lived experiences, to build trust and help lower tensions before things escalate.

Gun violence and gun-related injuries look different than they did 20 years ago, Scarborough said. In the past, police departments could pinpoint causation often through gang- or drug-related incidents. Nowadays, a number of these issues spring up from online “beef,” Scarborough said.

By intervening, Scarborough said they can stop things before they turn violent. This includes monitoring social media, being actively present in the communities most affected and building trust with those at risk.

“These practices continue on and on and really should be incorporated into the normal workings of a locality and/or police department so, to continually work at reducing gun violence through interrupting that group dynamic and the life of retaliation,” Scarborough said.

There is evidence to back her claims.

Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards, on numerous occasions, has highlighted the link between gun violence, especially among younger generations, to ongoing online conflicts — most notably, the 2023 Huguenot High School graduation shooting.

Hopewell, which implemented a GVI program in partnership with REAL Life late last year, reports a 67% reduction in gun violence in a six-month period.

Maurice Washington works as a life coach for the program. Previously incarcerated, Washington joined REAL Life as a participant. A few years later, he began working for the organization because he said he believed in its success.

Today, Washington is responsible for much of the intervention efforts. He meets with at-risk folks, shares his story and then helps get them back on track and out of dangerous situations.

With Hopewell as the model, other localities have joined in the hopes of seeing similar reductions. Petersburg is set to launch its own plan in the coming months.

Additionally, Richmond will see limited implementation of these initiatives through the organization’s partnership with Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which is in charge of all of the city’s public housing complexes.

Soon, the city will see several life coaches stationed at each of the city’s complexes who will meet with at-risk folks and work to deter violence. RISC is hoping this will serve as a steppingstone for a citywide implementation.

Previously, RISC met with Mayor Levar Stoney and other city leaders to push for its implementation. Stoney said the city is committed to putting an end to gun violence and has developed its own plan to address it.

The 42-page plan, which took years of planning, launched last year with a two-fold strategy: stricter public safety policing and pinpointing systemic causes. Essentially, the city is taking a public health approach and treating gun violence like an epidemic.

By addressing root causes, like a lack of resources, education and housing, city officials are hopeful they will see a decline in gun-related deaths.

Many of their programs offer similar approaches to the GVI plan with community and police intervention, Stoney previously told The Times-Dispatch.

For RISC and its members, it isn’t enough. By making a plea to future leaders through events like the roundtable discussion, they are hopeful a new plan will be implemented in the coming years.

The mayoral candidates in attendance included 1st District Council representative Andreas Addison, former Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services Danny Avula, former council member Michelle Mosby, businessman Harrison Roday and community activists Maurice Neblett and Bridgette Whittaker.

Whittaker has announced she is running for mayor. However, as of Tuesday morning, she has not filed the proper paperwork with the Virginia Department of Elections to be considered a candidate on the ballot.

None of the candidates spoke for or against the plan.

View the original story here.