On March 15, 2021, moments after Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams announced their plans to launch a new gun violence prevention program, DeVone Boggan’s phone started ringing. The calls were from reporters seeking Boggan’s comment on the news that his organization, Advance Peace, would bring its model to New York City.

There was only one problem: The expansion was also news to Boggan. 

As the CEO of Advance Peace, the nonprofit behind the program, Boggan typically gets involved early when a new city wants to use the model. “My initial visceral intuition was ‘Fire! Stay away. Stay away. Stay away,’” Boggan said recently. “And I didn’t.”

Now, it’s been more than 19 months since New York officials said the city would be launching the pilot, and there’s little progress to show for it.

The pilot was initially scheduled to begin in July 2021, then was shifted back to the fall of that year. Months later, no participants have been enrolled, and Advance Peace is pulling out of New York City altogether after what Boggan called a “toxic” experience.

Over the last year, the effort suffered from poor planning, a lack of central coordination, miscommunications, and missed deadlines, according to Advance Peace staffers, four people closely involved with the pilot, and documents and emails reviewed by The Trace and The City. 

As the federal government invests in community-based public safety strategies at an unprecedented level, Advance Peace’s trajectory in New York could be a cautionary tale for cities trying to quickly launch alternative public safety strategies while under political pressure to act amid rising rates of violence.

“Especially when the problem is as urgent as gun violence, the need for transparency, for planning carefully, for being attentive to what will work and what won’t, to being clear-eyed about where the pitfalls are, is crucial,” said Elizabeth Glazer, who served as director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) until 2020 before founding Vital City, a public safety-focused journal. “If you rush into it without that kind of planning, and scrutiny, you can find yourself further behind than if you took that time.”

The plans for the $5.5 million pilot came from the highest levels of the outgoing de Blasio administration. Their impromptu directive gave lower-level, career officials in the MOCJ who were responsible for its implementation little time to prepare. After the pilot failed to hit its benchmarks, the office overseeing it quietly decided not to renew its funding for the fiscal year that began in July.

“The Advance Peace pilot program was organized by the previous administration as a part of a legally mandated local police reform initiative,” a MOCJ spokesperson wrote in an email. “We remain committed to pursuing evidence-based anti-gun violence interventions and identifying effective models for New York City.”

Current Mayor Eric Adams has said the city’s network of violence interrupters, known as the Crisis Management System (CMS), is key to his plan to address gun violence. He also recently elevated A.T. Mitchell, the executive director of the Brooklyn anti-violence nonprofit Man Up Inc., to serve as the city’s “gun czar.” Despite promises to expand CMS’s work, Adams has not increased the system’s budget.   

‘They kind of forced our hand’

As early as the summer of 2020, during protests over the police murder of George Floyd, Williams, the city’s progressive public advocate, proposed bringing Advance Peace to New York at a time when protests and activists were calling for alternatives to traditional policing. 

Evidence also lent some credibility to the proposal: Advance Peace is one of a few community-based gun violence prevention strategies supported by academic research. A 2019 American Public Health Association study found that Advance Peace led to a nearly 45 percent decline in gun crime in Richmond, California, between 2010 and 2017. Other evaluations have drawn similar conclusions.

In March 2021, de Blasio promised during a news conference that the Advance Peace Pilot Program would enroll 10 fellows in each of the city’s five boroughs, targeting young men at high risk of being involved in gun violence. Once enrolled, community-based violence prevention organizations would provide the fellows with mentoring and monetary stipends in exchange for staying out of trouble and meeting specific life goals.

As de Blasio outlined his plan, New York was months into an alarming uptick in gun violence that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. After reaching a near-record low in 2019, shootings doubled in 2020 and rose higher in 2021, homicide clearance rates plummeted, and the city was struggling. Though the surge was still far below the record highs of the 1990s, it both threatened de Blasio’s legacy and became the dominant issue in a heated, competitive mayoral race to select his successor.

In the final months of his term, de Blasio doubled down on what had been an effective strategy throughout his tenure, pouring more money into the CMS. 

Many organizations within the system already operated street outreach and violence interruption programs akin to Advance Peace, but none exactly like it. Most use the Cure Violence model of violence interruption — which treats gun violence as a public health issue — or combine elements of other intervention strategies with supportive services like job placement and legal aid. 

In contrast, Advance Peace’s model focuses on intensive mentorship and “experiential learning” that exposes participants to new environments and ideas. Its use of monetary incentives and public safety data to identify participants particularly interested city officials.

“Investing in this program right now isn’t only a moral obligation, it’s a governing imperative,” Williams said at the time.

The plan wasn’t as simple as Advance Peace opening an office in Manhattan and enrolling fellows into its program. Instead, local organizations already working in New York’s CMS would lead the effort, the elected officials decided, with Advance Peace training the organizations’ staff and consulting.

The mayor and public advocate selected Community Capacity Development (CCD), a Queens-based anti-violence organization led by its founder and executive director, K. Bain, to coordinate the pilot. Just days before the public announcement, the elected officials directed the MOCJ to fund the initiative. CCD would run sites in the Bronx and Queens, while subcontracting with other established community-based organizations — Street Corner Resources in Manhattan, Penn & Perry in Staten Island, and Man Up! Inc. in Brooklyn — to run sites in those boroughs.

It was a familiar arrangement for Advance Peace. Organizations with deep community ties typically run local Advance Peace programs, with help and training from the national Advance Peace organization. CCD fit that profile. Bain was one of the early architects of the CMS, and he had long-standing relationships with de Blasio, Williams, Mayor Adams, and other violence prevention groups. Beyond New York City, Bain was tapped to join the White House’s Community Violence Intervention Collaborative. A spokesperson for CCD and Bain declined interview requests.

What was shockingly new to Advance Peace, however, was the lack of planning and coordination ahead of the announcement, staffers said.

“It was like they just read an article about us and just threw the name out there,” said Sam Vaughn, who oversees strategy expansion at Advance Peace and was involved in the New York pilot. “They kind of forced our hand to come out there because now it’s a national news story.”

The unexpected announcement also miffed more established violence prevention organizers in New York, who complained to Boggan that Advance Peace was coming into the city uninvited and encroaching on their existing work. Boggan began calling city officials, who he said had little more information but offered apologies for how the announcement happened. At that point, Boggan wasn’t ready to sign on. 

Two weeks after the announcement, during a March 31 meeting between CCD, Advance Peace, the public advocate, and the MOCJ, city officials urged Advance Peace to help, describing their participation as integral to the pilot. In the following weeks, after more calls and conversations — and a promise that there would be a contract and a commitment to the strategy itself — Advance Peace agreed to help.

“We struggled, but I didn’t want to get caught up in our process,” Boggan said. “People are dying. Let’s move on. At the time, we believed that they wanted to do this.”

In September 2021, a month after the pilot was supposed to launch, Boggan and four other Advance Peace staffers flew to New York to visit CCD’s sites in Queens. Boggan and the other Advance Peace staffers started to develop more serious reservations. They’d hoped to have conversations about how to run and structure the pilot, but instead, they toured CCD’s sites, followed by a photographer, and were asked to participate in a news conference, which the mayor was supposed to attend.

“You kind of know when you’re getting taken advantage of. It was clear they wanted to use the name. I just felt dirty when I left,” said Vaughn, who was part of the Advance Peace delegation. “It was really just a dog-and-pony show.”

After they left New York, Advance Peace attempted to invite lower-level CCD staff to California for a December 2021 training workshop. Following a disagreement over who should represent CCD at the workshop, Advance Peace ultimately rescinded its invitation. 

In the meantime, Advance Peace staff tried to get a contract signed with the MOCJ. Without becoming an approved contractor, Advance Peace couldn’t get reimbursed for work its staff had already done to start the pilot, which was behind schedule. The process was cumbersome, said Johann Fragd, administrative director of Advance Peace.

“When they say red tape, they must mean New York City because I have never in my life seen anything like this,” said Fragd, who previously worked as a city contracts manager in California. “I try to be adept at navigating things like this.”

As their attempts to get a contract carried on for months, Fragd found out by email that her organization’s proposed budget of $600,000 for training and technical assistance was being cut in half. City officials also wrote in the August 2022 email that the pilot wouldn’t be funded again because CCD was no longer using the model nor intended to use it moving forward. Advance Peace decided to pull out, without receiving reimbursement for its staffers’ trip to New York nor compensation for the time staff spent on the apparently defunct pilot.

“We have decided to forego any payment from the city of New York,” Boggan wrote in a September 2022 email to the MOCJ. “We have experienced a process that has lacked good character and integrity as to the intention of your local government and funded local providers to implement the Advance Peace Peacemaker Fellowship and/or any of its touchpoints with fidelity.”

It’s unclear how much money — if any — was spent in anticipation of the rollout, but the MOCJ and CCD signed a $5.5 million budget agreement for one year that ended June 30, 2022. CCD’s Advance Peace pilot budget included $1.5 million for 50 fellows, $1 million for 25 mentors, and $50,000 to pay 22 percent of Bain’s salary, among other expenses. Advance Peace typically suggests a budget of $30,000 per fellow, which includes administrative costs, evaluations, staffing, programming costs, and other expenses.

“It’s so important to commit to follow the evidence and, where you have a model that has worked, to be flexible enough to be willing to understand why that model worked,” Glazer said. “Otherwise, what’s the point? If you don’t do that, you will have destroyed the relationships and undermined the confidence of other people that the city is willing to follow the evidence and to execute on the evidence.”

The Advance Peace pilot would have been a small part of the CMS network of dozens of anti-violence nonprofits and programs that receive tens of millions in city funding every year.

In Harlem, Street Corner Resources founder Iesha Sekou, a well-known anti-violence activist, was looking forward to the pilot. 

“We constantly deal with young men and women in our community who may have access to guns, who may not have made the best decisions, and having a stipend to keep them engaged would have been a wonderful thing,” Sekou said. “I’m disappointed it didn’t happen.”

Despite being named in the city’s agreement with CCD, Sekou never had much insight into the process, she said, and over time, the information slowed from a trickle to nothing. Sekou said she hasn’t heard anything about the Advance Peace pilot in nearly 11 months, and her organization, which was slated to be a subcontractor under CCD, never received any funding or direction.

Street Corner Resources operates a hospital-based violence intervention program at Harlem Hospital, street outreach initiatives, and other anti-violence programs. And while other areas of the city may be seeing a slowdown in gun violence, at least according to New York Police Department data, Street Corner Resources is responding to more calls this year than in 2021 or 2020.

Advance Peace, Sekou said, would have complemented Street Corner Resources’ other work, but it doesn’t make or break her team’s strategy in Harlem.

“Even though we didn’t see Advance Peace, there are a host of initiatives that are coming,” Sekou said. “I’m looking forward to those things coming into fruition — not just in words, but in real action.”