‘Somebody’s going to get killed.’ Can Fresno find money for program that cuts gun violence?

Community advocates are calling on the Fresno City Council to allocate $300,000 for a program geared toward reducing gun violence — an effort they believe will save lives and taxpayer money.

Those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence like Aaron Foster, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley-Fresno, say the time for trying solutions is now.

“I don’t think we can afford to wait another year because somebody’s going to get killed. We know that for sure,” he said.

The program Foster is referring to is called Advance Peace. It’s been tried in California cities such as Richmond, and was adopted by Sacramento and Stockton in recent years.

The idea behind the program is to identify the most active firearm-wielding criminals in the community, and try to change their behavior. That’s done thought one-on-one intervention, therapy and mentoring. Those offenders who reach agreed-upon goals can receive financial benefits.

Foster and other community members for two years have advocated to bring the Advance Peace Peacemaker Fellowship to Fresno. In that time, more than 20 people living in southwest Fresno have died from gun violence, he said.

In late April, Rev. Simon Biasell of Presbytery of San Joaquin, wrote to Mayor Lee Brand urging him to include the fellowship in the budget and offering support from a coalition of city clergy. In an interview with The Bee on Wednesday, Biasell said he received no response.

“I’m confused as to why solutions for our city can’t come from community groups,” said Biasell, noting the community support for Advance Peace could be an answer to the mayor’s calls for strengthening public safety in his campaign against Measure P — a parks sales tax on the ballot measure.

“My hope is that the City Council members will listen to the call from their communities asking them to bring on this program that has the ability to not just make our streets safer, but to literally save lives,” Biasell said.

In Richmond, gun injuries and deaths decreased by 66 percent from 2010 to 2017 under the program, according to the Advance Peace website.

Advance Peace requires a five-year commitment and $300,000 per year in funding. The program is supplemented by private funding as well.

Although some city leaders say they support the program, they provided a number of reasons why it wasn’t included in this year’s budget.

Brand and Councilmember Miguel Arias said they believe the decision should be left to the next police chief, since Jerry Dyer is retiring in October.

“That said, we are also looking for private funding to continue and expand similar successful programs currently being run by the Fresno Police Department in impacted communities and churches,” Brand said in an emailed statement to The Bee.

Arias said in an email he was open to allocating the money this year, along with other programs proven to cut crime. “I believe there is sufficient funds in the current proposed police budget that is scheduled to increase by 10 percent,” he said.

Dyer said he supports the Advance Peace concept and believes the police department should incorporate it into its existing gang intervention programs using current street outreach workers. “Ideally, private funding should be utilized to support these efforts,” he said.

Waiting for solutions

Foster knows firsthand what it’s like to lose loved ones to gun violence. He lost two children, a son and daughter, four years apart on Memorial Day weekend.

His son, Aaron Foster III, 21, was involved in gangs, but his daughter, Kayla, 18, wasn’t. She was fatally shot by gang members shortly before her high school graduation.

“There’s a misconception that gang members are the only people dying,” he said. “My daughter was never in a gang. She was about to graduate. There’s innocent people being killed by these bullets as well.”

The program has drawn some critics elsewhere, who say it essentially amounts to paying off criminals to not commit acts of violence.

For example, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones previously has said he has “fundamental objections” to the program and to the idea of paying “people just to (not) commit crimes or shoot people.”

After watching the first day of the City Council’s budget hearings, where councilmembers proposed allocating $1 million to a senior center and millions more to hire police officers and dispatchers, Foster said he was offended.

While he supports funding for a senior center, “I think we should have the privilege to live to be seniors,” he said about residents facing the gun violence crisis in southwest Fresno.

“It proves what we knew all along: The idea they can’t find $300,000 to save lives is a lie,” said Andy Levine, with Faith in the Valley- Fresno. “It’s about priorities and who matters. So we’re still hoping councilmembers will change their minds before the end of June to include this in the budget.”

Rev. DJ Criner of St. Rest Baptist Church, who also signed Biasell’s letter, had a simple message for Fresno’s leaders: “Put your money where your mouth is.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.