‘It’s not paying folks to not shoot someone.’ Gun violence plan divides Fresno council

After a heated debate on Thursday that touched on criminal justice philosophies and laws, the Fresno City Council on a split vote moved closer toward funding the Advance Peace program geared toward reducing gun violence.

Funding the program became controversial in the days leading up to the vote as council members Miguel Arias and Garry Bredefeld debated the issue on KMJ, and even Rep. Devin Nunes weighed in on Twitter.

Thursday’s vote directs the mayor’s administration to meet with community leaders, and in 90 days return to the council with a proposal to roll out Advance Peace or another option to address gun violence that will be partially funded with $200,000 from city coffers.

Bredefeld and Council President Paul Caprioglio voted against the move. Arias, Luis Chavez and Nelson Esparza voted in favor. Councilmember Esmeralda Soria was absent.

Advance Peace — a fellowship and mentorship program for gang members deemed most likely to commit gun crimes — is being pushed by Faith in the Valley-Fresno and other community advocacy groups. Local critics oppose the program because after completing certain criteria and sticking with the program for six months, participants receive a stipend.

“My biggest fear is that it becomes more policing instead of more community involvement. So my hope is that we’ll sit down in the next 90 days and have community in front of it,” said Aaron Foster, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley. “…One without the other is not going to work.”

Earlier in the meeting, Bredefeld pushed to hire more officers and dispatchers for the police department, saying additional resources for the hires would help the city’s homeless and panhandling problems. The reason the city struggles with gun violence is because of California laws that weaken punishment for crimes, he said.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer said he supports the concept but thinks it should be funded entirely through private money. “I’m philosophically opposed to providing money to gang members,” he said.

Foster said the stipend paid to fellows, which would come from private funding — not city funding, isn’t enough to force them off the streets. “Paying a gang member would cost a lot more money,” he said. “What’s more ridiculous for me is it costs more to house a prisoner than it does for a small stipend.”

Other cities in California, such as Sacramento, Stockton and Richmond are trying out the program with mixed results. It drew opposition in Sacramento too, where the sheriff objected to it.

Nunes in his tweet said the idea of “paying criminals to be nice” is another reason why California is “going off the rails.”

Council members Luis Chavez and Nelson Esparza noted that the functions of the program have been misrepresented in the news and on the radio since the issue was thrust into the spotlight. Chavez welcomed a new approach to reducing gun violence and liked the workforce development aspect of the program. “It’s not the city paying folks money to not shoot someone,” he said. “That’s not what this is.”

No programs tried in Fresno so far have been 100 percent effective, Foster said, and he acknowledged Advance Peace might not be, either.

“They had a chance to do it their way, now let’s try it this way,” he said. “If it fails, it fails. But if it doesn’t, then we have something with some sustainability.”

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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.