Richmond’s ONS ‘loves on’ at risk people to end gun violence

ONS ‘loves on’ at risk people to end gun violence in Richmond
Sam Vaugn speaks at an event at Richmond City Hall alongside Assemblymember Buffy Wicks and former Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.

By Kathy Chouteau

Since it hit the ground running in October 2007, the City of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) has had a sole purpose: to reduce and end gun violence in the city.

The concept pioneered by ONS Founder DeVone Boggan here in Richmond is now a national model, with versions of the program adopted in cities across the country. The program is among the tools local leaders are crediting with helping to reduce the city’s homicide total to eight in 2023, the lowest annual total since 1971.

Last fall, the Standard caught up with ONS Deputy Director Sam Vaughn to learn more about the organization. Vaughn said ONS employs two key strategies in its mission to end gun violence in Richmond: Street Outreach and Operation Peacemaker Fellowship.

Street Outreach sees staff go out into the community to connect with people who are at a high risk for gun violence and encourage them to tap into life altering resources and organizations. Vaughn said the street outreach perspective is about going out into the streets to build credibility, relationships and trust, so ONS can get the information it needs about specific individuals.

“At times when they’re high risk, we’ll create a resource,” said Vaughn, noting that this happens when the best means of helping someone isn’t readily available.

Vaughn said help for high risk individuals is done on a case-by-case, “different things at different times” basis. For instance, if a situation is escalating and the person happens to have an uncle in Atlanta, ONS might buy a plane ticket to relocate them. Or, temperatures might be rising over a stolen cellphone—so ONS will intervene by providing one. And sometimes, its intervention might be simply providing a person with groceries.

“My job is to try to make sure that I have resources to get creative to stop violence from occurring,” said Vaughn.

ONS’ creative solutions also extend to its second key strategy: Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. Vaughn said the strategy takes people at the center of—and most impacted by—gun violence and walks them through an 18-month process to try to give them “all that they need.”

In cohorts of approximately 12-19 people at Richmond City Hall, ONS teaches participants “to learn how to deal with life without engaging in violence.”

It can be a delicate balance—sometimes ONS has to schedule more than one cohort since people are feuding with each other, but they work to help both sides of the conflict access the resources they need to avoid violence.

As part of the program, participants are provided rewards ranging from $125 up to $1,000 to ensure they can remain in a healthy environment. Vaughn says the funds incentivize participants to stay on the straight and narrow, and that he’s seen firsthand the impact it is having on his clients.

Since its inception, ONS has gained national recognition for its success in helping Richmond reduce violence. Vaughn credited organizations like RYSE, RPAL and the Safe Return Project and the generous contributions of the local business community, such as Chevron Richmond, for helping support ONS in providing resources and opportunities for its at-risk clients. 

Vaughn also gave props to the City of Richmond, which did something very unique in response to the community’s outcry against rising violence by creating this innovative office.

So how can the local community help ONS continue to be successful in its efforts? Vaughn said people can help them by not villainizing young people who do dumb things because they’re traumatized. “You can’t help anybody get better if you can’t accept where they are at that moment.”

With an eye toward the future, Vaughn said ONS’ goal is simple: Zero homicides. He said that he couldn’t get up and do what he does every day if he didn’t believe it was possible.

In the meantime, Vaughn said ONS is driving home the overriding message to its participants that, “We are going to love on you until you learn how to love yourself.”

Learn more about the City of Richmond’s ONS here. Contact ONS at 510-620-5422.