At 12:29 a.m. on July 15, a Chrysler 200 was pulled over in the parking lot of the Monterey Pines Apartments complex near Kennedy High, where the alleged gang-related killing of Fontino Hardy Jr. had occurred about eight hours earlier, followed an hour later by the retaliatory shooting that injured three rivals at the nearby Pullman Point Apartments.
During the traffic stop — prompted by the driver’s alleged failure to fully stop at a stop sign – police uncovered 16 grams of marijuana in the center console along with a loaded gun in the pocket of a known gang member in the back seat, prompting the investigating officer to suggest in his police report that the occupants may have been involved in the retaliatory shooting at Pullman. No evidence has been presented nor charges filed in the retaliatory shooting case, which remains under investigation.
The man who was allegedly found in possession of the gun, identified as Anthony Royston, was subsequently charged with being a felon in possession with a gang enhancement, and is expected to appear in court for a preliminary hearing Sept. 8, according to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.
But just as alarming about that traffic stop, according to police, were the two individuals sitting in the front seats of the Chrysler.
Both the driver and front seat passenger were identified as change agents employed by the City of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS). The driver was initially booked on suspicion of possession of a concealed firearm in a vehicle with a gang enhancement, but was apparently not charged by the DA. The DA charged only Royston in connection with the traffic stop.
The other ONS agent, the front-seat passenger, was detained, interviewed and then released without charges.
ONS has garnered both national praise and controversy for a program that sends former criminals into areas known for gang violence with the aim of preventing outbreaks. Another ONS program pays some of Richmond’s most violent young people a monthly stipend to turn their lives around.
But the July 15 traffic stop may have renewed tensions between the ONS and Richmond police, some of whom have been at odds with the ONS for years. Sources in the department point to the incident as another instance where these city employees crossed the line between crime prevention and crime enabling.
The ONS agent was described by the officer who arrested him, Det. Douglas Gault, as uncooperative. The previous day, right after Hardy was shot and killed, that same ONS agent was accused of driving his city vehicle into the crime scene and interfering with police officers, according to a source with knowledge of the incident.
In the police report from that night, Det. Gault referenced an encounter he had with the same ONS agent in June. The agent “honked his horn to notify surrounding subjects of my presence” while patrolling a known gang area, the detective said.
This isn’t the first time law enforcement officers have butted heads with ONS agents. In 2011, tensions flared following reports of a fight in the agency’s City Hall office involving ONS fellows. At the time, a police spokesperson said the police report had been leaked and wasn’t meant for public release. The episode, the Richmond Confidential reported at the time, “cast a strong light on the increasingly controversial role of the ONS and its tenuous relationship” with police. ONS supporters, including City Manager Bill Lindsay, later pointed out the fight involved fists, not guns, which can be viewed as a step in the right direction.
The following year, a Contra Costa Sheriff’s deputy was accused of assaulting an ONS agent who was responding to the scene of a North Richmond homicide, according to the Richmond Confidential.
Supporters of the ONS argue that the very nature of the job requires agents to associate with known gang members and gain their trust in order to prevent retaliatory crimes. And they say the strategy is working. They point out that ONS has been credited for playing a role in the vast reduction in Richmond homicides, which went from 47 in 2009 to a four-decades-low of 11 last year.
Richmond Police Chief Magnus has also supported the program as a fresh approach that attempts to go beyond the old school method of swarming a neighborhood with police following violence.
“Chief Magnus is open to investing in innovative ways to solving gun violence,” police Capt. Mark Gagan said. “While I’m unable to speak on the [July 15] incident, we are generally supportive of the violence reduction efforts by ONS and have no reason to believe they routinely involve themselves in criminal activities.”
In an interview with the Richmond Standard last week, ONS director DeVone Boggan also declined to discuss specifics of the traffic stop, citing the police investigation. He also declined to say what the ONS agents were doing in the vehicle – whether they were attempting to shield the two men from arrest or preventing a retaliatory act of violence — citing the sensitive nature of their work. But he sternly defended the agents.
“All of our agents are employed because we believe they are doing outstanding and extraordinary work,” Boggan said.
He added, “Most of our agents have been with us since the beginning, which I think is pretty extraordinary. It translates to trust on the streets. We’ve been able to garner an extreme amount of trust within the communities that have been impacted by gunfire.”
ONS received a positive review in a newly-published study by the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) (see full report here), which found its programs are working to prevent crime as well as provide for better lives for the young men who participate.
“While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this [crime reduction], many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond,” the report stated.
Additionally, NCCD noted that 94 percent of participants in the ONS fellows program remain alive. The program pays some of the city’s most violence-prone people monthly stipends of between $300 and $1,000 if they stay violence-free, and links them to career and education resources. Last year, there were 68 fellows in the 18-month-long program.
Besides Chief Magnus, ONS has the support of other high ranking officers on the force, Richmond City Council and City Manager Bill Lindsay.
Faith leaders have also come to the program’s defense, including Richmond police chaplain Rev. Andre Shumake, who called its work “outstanding.”