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Fresno clergy outraged that mayor won’t fund gun violence prevention program Advance Peace

The Fresno Bee - 6/15/2022

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer is pulling back his support for the gun violence prevention program Advance Peace after one of its employees was arrested in a large gang operation earlier this year.

Dyer’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year does not fund Advance Peace, which is currently run through Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.

However, Dyer’s proposed budget does highlight $950,000 for a “gang intervention program” focused on intervening in gang violence and supporting people who leave gangs. That’s the same amount of money the Fresno City Council in December allocated to Advance Peace using American Rescue Plan Act funding.

That move outraged a coalition of local clergy.

Advance Peace supporters showed up to Fresno City Hall during the Fresno City Council’s first round of annual budget hearings Monday seeking answers about the program and urging councilmembers to restore the funding.

The current Fresno City Council Democratic majority has previously expressed strong support for the program. But so far, those councilmembers mostly have kept their thoughts to themselves, and it’s unclear whether the progressive city council will fight to fund the program.

In the meantime, Fresno EOC’s leader vowed to stand behind Advance Peace.

“Fresno EOC stands behind Advance Peace Fresno and will continue to advocate, raise funds, and generate community support for this important program, which has made great strides in reducing gun violence and promoting healing in our most vulnerable neighborhoods,” Emilia Reyes, the commission’s CEO, said in a statement. “Fresno EOC is a strong partner with the Fresno Police Department to reduce gun violence in Fresno. We simply ask that the city take a second look at the program’s demonstrated success and work with Advance Peace Fresno to make our community safer.

Advance Peace faced uphill battle from the beginning

Faith in the Valley, a faith-based nonprofit, began the push to bring Advance Peace to Fresno in 2019.

Advance Peace identifies the city’s most likely shooters and provides services and support to give them reasons to live without the violence. The program has seen success backed by research in other California cities such as Richmond and Stockton.

Some Fresno leaders were reluctant to support the program at first. Former Fresno Mayor Lee Brand vetoed the City Council’s funding allocation for the program in 2019.

The program was highly scrutinized because its “fellows” get a $1,000 stipend if they stay in the program for a certain length of time. Conservative politicians and talk radio hosts characterized that aspect of the program as paying gang members not to shoot people.

In 2020 and 2021, Fresno saw gun violence skyrocket. At the same time, and in response to the Minnesota police killing of George Floyd, Fresno residents demanded police reforms. The Fresno Commission for Police Reform recommended the city fund and use Advance Peace to tackle gun violence.

Fresno EOC agreed in 2020 to run the program with $900,000 of state grant funding intended to be distributed equally for three years. The Fresno City Council also voted in 2020 to fund the program after the recommendation from the Commission on Police Reform.

Advance Peace got off the ground in Fresno around June 2021 in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers with U.C. Berkeley found that in the second half of 2021, Advance Peace Fresno’s 17 fellows interrupted 60 imminent gun violence conflicts; responded to 21 shootings to prevent retaliatory violence; and mediated 200 community conflicts that could have escalated to gun violence.

Advance Peace employee arrested

But the city’s relationship with Advance Peace began to sour in April, after Leonard Smith, an Advance Peace employee, was arrested during Operation No Fly Zone, a massive multi-agency gang operation. He pleaded not guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

Prosecutors allege Smith told a co-defendant that the police were looking for him. Smith allegedly advised the other defendant to leave town and said he would look after his family. Smith allegedly asked the man for a gun, “so Smith could attack an unidentified individual giving Smith problems,” according to court documents.

At the time, Advance Peace Program Manager Aaron Foster issued a short statement on Smith’s arrest.

“Yes, Leonard Smith is an employee of Advance Peace Fresno. By the nature of of the program, our Neighborhood Change Agents work with gang members to reduce cyclical and retaliatory gun violence. We are looking forward to a positive outcome,” Foster told The Bee.

After Smith’s arrest, Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama told City Manager Georgeanne White that the department would stop working with Advance Peace, White said in a statement to The Bee. White said Balderrama previously was a strong supporter of Advance Peace.

Balderrama told White that, beyond Smith’s arrest, “several concerning issues” about Advance Peace came to light during an investigation.

“The chief was adamant that due to the criminal indictment of an Advance Peace member for conspiracy to commit murder, threats made to at least one city council member, and the misuse of sensitive information provided to Advance Peace, Fresno PD could no longer partner, share information, or work with Advance Peace under the current model,” White said in her statement.

Balderrama currently is out of the country for training and unavailable to comment for this story. White also declined to comment further beyond her lengthy statement to The Bee.

Details about the alleged threat to a councilmember were not available. The Bee reached out to all seven councilmembers for comment, and none of them addressed the threat.

Reyes said Fresno EOC was disappointed by the city’s position and decision to sever ties with Advance Peace.

“Fresno EOC is disappointed that the city’s administration has made the decision to pull from the city’s 2023 fiscal year budget $950,000 in matching funds intended to support and expand the work of Advance Peace Fresno,” Reyes said. “Fresno EOC, Advance Peace Fresno, the Fresno Police Department and the city of Fresno have engaged in multiple meetings and conversations regarding the program. Based on the city manager’s statement, it is clear we have a different viewpoint on the program’s success and effectiveness.”

City proposes funding violence intervention program

Following Smith’s arrest, city leaders told Fresno EOC in May that it wold continue to partner on a gang prevention and intervention program, but not the Advance Peace model, White said.

“The violence prevention program that the city intended to fund depended on a cooperative relationship between the police department and Advance Peace, which no longer exists,” White said.

But according to Marcel Woodruff, lead organizer with Faith in the Valley, “a relationship between the police department and Advance Peace was never a stipulation of funding.”

To further complicate things, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections on Monday again awarded the program a violence intervention and prevention grant through the Fresno EOC. However, the grant funding requires a match from the city, Woodruff said, and, “without city funds, we would have to fund raise the match.”

Reyes said Smith’s arrest will not deter Fresno EOC from its mission to reduce gun violence.

“Advance Peace is a national program that has reduced gun violence in multiple cities. The Advance Peace model works and has proven to be successful in Fresno and beyond,” she said, referencing the UC Berkeley data. “It works so well that the program recently received $1.2 million in renewed funding through the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program, which supports evidence-based violence reduction initiatives.”

Dyer’s proposed budget would allocate $950,000 to a community violence intervention program, but it provides few details. The proposed budget says the program would use gang intervention specialists to intervene in gang violence. The goal is to provide services to people exiting gangs so they could improve their lives and make positive contributions to society, according to the proposed budget.

But Reyes said Advance Peace has proven to be the best intervention program the city’s tried so far.

“To date, we have found no data that shows any other violence intervention program funded by the city or implemented by the Fresno Police Department is more effective than Advance Peace Fresno,” she said.

Fresno clergy outraged about city budget proposal

Fresno clergy who support Advance Peace expressed in a letter their outrage that funding was left out of the city’s proposed budget, and they’re demanding city leaders return the program’s funding.

In a letter to Dyer and the City Council this week, 33 faith leaders from multiple religions throughout Fresno expressed their disappointment and discouragement that federal funding for the program was lost as well. They placed the blame on city leaders’ inaction.

“Now that we’ve learned the mayor’s office not only failed to distribute the approved $950,000 in ARPA funds, but is now trying to reallocate those dollars for its own version of a community violence program, we are outraged,” the clergy letter said.

“The safety and lives of the people in our city are too valuable to risk on political games,” the letter said. “Please support Advance Peace as originally intended by our community and our elected leaders.”

During the City Council’s first round of budget hearings on Monday, one reverend and Foster, Advance Peace’s program manager, addressed the lack of funding during public comment.

“I just want to speak for Advance Peace because we have a lot of confusion about what’s going on with the $950,000,” said Foster, who worked to bring the program to Fresno. “They say a lot of things about Advance Peace, but what they can’t say is that we’re not effective. They can dispute the numbers all day, but they exist. Advance Peace has had a hand in reducing gun violence in this community. The numbers don’t lie.”

Foster spoke about the program’s avenues for providing healing, including giving people time to record music in a studio and participate in healing circles.

Rev. Simon Biasell of Woven Community Church, who serves on Advance Peace’s board, told the City Council that the gang intervention program mentioned in the budget initially looked like a good thing. After further scrutiny, it raised red flags for him. The program appears to be intended to replace Advance Peace, he said.

“I would ask that the council would hold the administration accountable, that these funds would go toward Advance Peace and not be used for a new program that the community has not requested,” Biasell said.

Since Foster and Biasell spoke during public comment Monday, an online petition was created also urging the mayor and city council to continue funding Advance Peace.

City Council majority quiet on gun violence program

White said Dyer’s administration is committed to reducing gang violence in Fresno, particularly the Black community.

“This was the primary reason for Operation No Fly Zone, which was directly responsible for preventing numerous shootings of African-American victims that would have otherwise occurred if not for this operation,” she said.

White said she trusts and firmly stands by Balderrama’s judgment and concerns about Advance Peace.

“On this public safety matter, I must trust the judgment of my Police Chief when he conveys serious concerns regarding Advance Peace and that the trust and partnership have been compromised,” she said. “Not only do I trust Chief Balderrama, but I firmly stand by his decision.”

At least two city councilmembers already said they could no longer support Advance Peace. However, the Democratic bloc of councilmembers who often vote together haven’t said much.

“It’s disappointing to learn of these issues with Advance Peace, and this is why I voted against funding them nearly $1 million,” Councilmember Garry Bredefeld said in an email. “Unfortunately, I was the only councilmember to oppose this funding.

“Giving people money to not engage in criminal behavior is illogical and lacks common sense,“ Bredefeld said. “I support programs that help at-risk youth BEFORE they get into trouble with the law. Once someone breaks the law, there needs to be real consequences for their actions which is not happening in California currently and why we have severe spikes in crime.”

Councilmember Mike Karbassi said he was willing to give Advance Peace a chance, but the latest revelation from Balderrama was troubling.

“There is no way that the police department will be able to safely share information with Advance Peace,” he said. “They have lost our community’s trust, and the city manager made the responsible decision. There are other ways to reduce gang violence that do not put innocent victims in harm’s way.”

Councilmember Luis Chavez said the city is 100% committed to combating gun violence, and he’d like to see more prevention rather than suppression and intervention.

“An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure,” he said. “We will continue to fund gang violence prevention programs and efforts, regardless if we name it Advance Peace or another name. The goal is still the same: reducing the number of gang violence and murder in our city.”

Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias were unable to comment before The Bee’s deadline. Councilmembers Nelson Esparza and Tyler Maxwell did not respond to requests for comment.

The Fresno City Council must approve a balanced budget by June 30. Dyer can veto changes to his proposed budget, but a supermajority city council vote, meaning five votes, can overturn the mayor’s veto.

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