RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — “The city no longer needs to fund or administer Gun Violence Intervention,” Second Baptist Church Pastor Ralph Hodge said to a packed sanctuary on Tuesday night. “They just need to work with us.”

Pastor Hodge’s speech came midway through the annual Community Problems Assembly hosted by Richmonders Involved in Strengthening our Communities (RISC), a coalition of Richmond churches and synagogues.

This year, one of their main focuses was a Gun Violence Intervention (GVI) program spear-headed by community rehabilitation organization REAL Life. Dr. Sarah Scarbrough, director of REAL Life, said they were dedicated to an evidence-based model of fighting gun violence that wouldn’t increase incarceration.

“In over 90 cities throughout the country, GVI has significantly decreased not only shootings, but arrests,” she told 8News. “That’s huge, and we don’t want people filling up our jails, we want them alive and well and thriving in our community.”

GVI itself is a framework backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which its proponents say is backed by strong empirical evidence. A 2010 study of Project Ceasefire in Boston, which used the GVI framework, found that it contributed to a 63% reduction in youth homicide.

Going Their Separate Ways

But while REAL life has received just over $300,000 to jump start the program from Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern Virginia, RISC said they’ve been stonewalled by Mayor Levar Stoney, who’s pushing forward with his own gun violence plan.

“We had proposed [GVI] to the mayor back in 2020,” Pastor Hodge said. “Since that time, nearly 200 individuals have been killed and more than a few families have been shaken up.”

Dr. Scarbrough said that REAL Life is still working on securing additional funding to meet their $500,000 goal for the program. She added that their plan doesn’t necessarily conflict with existing city initiatives, but should be seen as a complement to them.

Dr. Sarah Scarbrough speaks at RISC’s annual Community Problems Assembly, held at Second Baptist Church in Richmond’s Southside. (Photo: Jakob Cordes/WRIC)

She pointed out that many of Mayor Levar Stoney’s plans are aimed at early childhood intervention, which isn’t likely to address the immediate problem.

“What GVI tells us is that generally speaking, shooters are between the ages of 18 and 25,” she said. “So a program for middle schoolers is awesome for prevention purposes, but most likely that middle schooler is not going to become a shooter for several years down the road.”

It’s unclear whether Stoney will support the REAL Life program now that it’s found federal and state funding, as well as support from congressman Donald McEachin. In a February letter, Stoney heavily criticized RISC, accusing them of using bullying tactics.

“If RISC is really serious about gun violence prevention, they will focus their energies on working
with us in the community, not against us, and abandon the misguided and shameful strategy of
trying to use gun violence victims as pawns to advance their position by bullying and intimidating public officials when they don’t get what exactly they want,” Stoney write.

One key part of Stoney’s efforts was a $67,000 gun buyback program that collected a large number of firearms earlier this year, but faced questions over its effectiveness in light of an academic study showing buybacks had little effect on gun violence.

Personal Testimony

During the meeting, Rosa Lewis, a congregant from Second Baptist, spoke about her own experience with gun violence.

“In the late afternoon of June 9, 2018, there was a shootout between people in two cars and a home on my block,” she said. “Police counted 68 or more bullet casings.”

While she was not injured, she said the stress of the near miss affected her deeply.

“I was sitting on my porch when the shooting started,” she said. “With the anxiety, I ended up in the hospital for seven days.”

The Stoney administration has faced criticism over their slow rollout of a “violence interrupters” program announced eight months ago, which has yet to start work.

Still, Scarbrough holds out hop that REAL Life will find a way to cooperate with the city to help tackle the epidemic of gun violence.

“Do we have to have them? No — but we want to be partners of people in the city that can all come together and bring this and other programming forward.”