Merced City Council is considering a new way to reduce violence

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Merced Police are investigating the scene of the shooting near the intersection of Olive and Meadows Avenues in Merced, California on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.

Merced Police are investigating the scene of the shooting near the intersection of Olive and Meadows Avenues in Merced, California on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.

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A relatively new approach to tackling community violence will be considered by Merced City Council on Monday.

Council members will decide whether to support an Advance Peace pilot program in Merced — an effort that has been attempted in cities like Richmond, Stockton, Sacramento and Fresno.

In short, the nonprofit program aims to reduce gun violence by identifying the city’s most likely gunmen — and encouraging them to enroll in a program led by attorneys.

There is therapy, mentoring and potential financial incentives for participants if they achieve agreed goals. The nonprofit organization focuses on working with those most affected by cyclical and retaliatory gun violence.

The future partnership aims to address one of Merced’s most important goals for the future, City Manager Stephanie Dietz told the Sun-Star.

Addressing community violence prevention has been on the list of goals and priorities for Merced, which helps allocate city funds, for the past two fiscal years.

Supporters say the program creates a more proactive approach compared to Merced’s current model, which responds to situations where violence has already occurred, Dietz said.

City Council members Jesse Ornelas and Delray Shelton each learned about Advance Peace separately and suggested it as a possible way to address violent crime in Merced, Dietz said. In late 2021, city officials traveled to Fresno to learn how the program worked.

Advance Peace’s approach in no way replaces law enforcement, but rather works in tandem with existing criminal justice systems, Shelton said the Sun Star. The City Council Member also serves as Merced County Sheriff Lieutenant.

Shelton said he learned during the Fresno visit that Advance Peace’s relationship with law enforcement in the area was supportive. “I see this program as an additional resource that can be added in conjunction with and in support of what is currently in place,” he said.

The program supports those at the heart of gun hostility and bridges the gap between anti-violence programs and hard-to-reach populations at the heart of violence in urban areas, according to the nonprofit’s website.

At the heart of the approach is a personalized and intensive “peacemaker community” for youth involved in firearms crimes. Grantees take group life skills classes, receive community services, care for the elderly, opportunities for internships and travel — and a milestone bonus as they show progress

But the program has drawn criticism from other cities over the years. For example, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones expressed “fundamental objections” to the program in 2017, equating it with paying people not to commit crimes.

If Merced executives support a partnership with Advance Peace, 50% of the funding would come from Measure Y, a local tax for cannabis entrepreneurs. The other half would be funded from dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, totaling $500,000 for the violence prevention pilot program.

Can success be replicated in Merced?

Reports of violent crime have increased in Merced over the past year, with 13 counts of homicide/negligent homicide compared to seven in 2020 — an increase of 85.71% — according to the city’s crime data provided to the FBI.

According to a report by the organization, Richmond saw an 85% drop in gun attacks between 2012 and 2019 while the program was operational. Of 127 individuals enrolled on the Peacemaker Fellowship over the course of six cohorts, 66% had no new gun-related charges as of 2019.

Reported improvements were also shown in Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento.

Shelton noted the recent upsurge in local violence as well as among Merced’s young people. “Youth violence, where we’re going, is very close to my heart,” he said.

Alongside this, Advance Peace could represent a new, different tool in the city’s toolbox Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement, Counseling, Education and Vocational Trainingexplained Shelton.

In addition to supporting at-risk youth, the city council member said the program could also be a boon in supporting local law enforcement.

Law enforcement officers are sometimes expected to be the solution in situations where supportive services are more appropriate, Shelton said. This leads to officers who are not professionals in counseling or mentoring and are performing tasks they are not equipped for, he said.

“This could potentially be a program that, if implemented correctly together, could help fill in the gaps,” Shelton said.

Merced City Council votes on next steps

What a partnership with Advance Peace would look like locally is not yet clear.

On Monday, the city council will decide whether employees can complete the first step of completing a site evaluation form. The assessment guides which program is most appropriate for a community by assessing its needs, opportunities and resources.

“(The program) is tailored to the needs of each jurisdiction through each assessment,” Dietz said.

If given the green light to complete the evaluation, the staff will return at a future meeting with a presentation of a Merced-specific pilot program for city council consideration.

Even if leaders ultimately decide that Advance Peace is not a good fit for Merced, the assessment would be a valuable exercise in identifying local needs as the city moves forward and explores alternative violence-prevention strategies, Dietz said. There is no cost to the city for the assessment.

The public can comment on the Advance Peace program in the council chambers during the Merced City Council meeting Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Comments may also be made by emailing [email protected] or by calling (209) 388-8688 no later than 1:00 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

This story was originally published Apr 17, 2022 3:11 p.m.

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Abbie Lauten-Scrivner is a reporter for the Merced Sun star. It covers the city of Atwater and Merced County. Abbie holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Public Relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

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