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Despite Lack of City Funding, A Father’s Quest To Lower Gun Violence In Fresno Gets Results

Monica Velez
Valley Public Radio
Aaron Foster

At about 10 a.m. Aaron Foster heads to Ivy and Lorena streets in southwest Fresno. In his pickup truck, he goes around neighborhoods in this area every day, or what he calls “hitting the loop.”


“This is just the hood, we call it the block,” he said. “Every neighborhood got a block. This is the southwest Fresno that no one sees. The poverty is obvious.”


He does this to “sustain the peace” and to prevent shootings from happening.  


“The devil don’t take no days off and we can’t either,” the anti-gun violence advocate said. “I get up in the morning, I come and check the blocks. We go around and check the temperature. What’s going on?"


If a street is quiet that’s a sign tension is brewing, Foster said. He asks around to see if anyone was beefing the night before because fights can turn into murder, he said. He also monitors social media posts to see if there are any threats of violence. 


“But we get in front of the tension, just loosen it up a little, then we can coexist,” Foster said.


Foster has been doing this for the past two years, he said, to make sure no one else has to bury their children. In 2013, his son was shot and killed and he also lost his daughter to gun violence in 2017.


Since his daughter passed Foster has also been pushing for a program to come to Fresno that has proven to reduce gun violence in other cities. Advance Peace works with the most violent shooters by consistently giving them the resources to change their lives. Those who join this fellowship receive mentoring, behavioral therapy, life skills training, internships, and a stipend of up to $1,000 a month if they reach their goals.


The Fresno City Council voted to set aside $200,000 for the program but in July Mayor Lee Brand vetoed that funding. The council directed the mayor to come up with an alternative gun violence reduction strategy with community advocates within 90 days, but Foster said he’s still waiting for that to happen.


“I haven’t talked to the mayor once about Advance Peace,” Foster said. “Ninety days passed and the conversation is gone.”


Often, Foster said, the people making these decisions are "the farthest away from the pain.


“So as we wait for the mayor to care, somebody is going to die,” he said.


Brand declined multiple requests for an interview. In the past, he has said he was skeptical of the program because it had no scientific backing. But this month a study was published in the American Public Health Association that found the Advance Peace model does work to reduce gun violence. 


The study analyzed how the program worked in Richmond, California, where it started and looked at data from 1996 to 2016. In Richmond, there were 43 percent fewer crimes and 55 percent fewer deaths and hospital visits annually since the program started in 2010. However, there was an "unexpected" uptick in nonfirearm related crimes, the study found.


In an email, Brand said the study wasn’t “definitive” but it will help guide the city.


In the meantime, Foster has created his own version of Advance Peace by talking to gang members to try and prevent violence in southwest Fresno. First, he started by settling his own beef with other people. 


“I squashed a 15-year beef I had with someone,” Foster said. “Now we try to put out and stop beef from happening with young people. That’s what we do every day.” 


People don’t really want to shoot each other, Foster said, but oftentimes that’s the only way gang members know how to handle their differences. 


“If one person gets killed, it engages a war,” Foster said. “So it’s like one body on the floor, thirty people mad, you got four people who are trying to avenge this death.”


Foster said he can’t do this work alone. He coordinates with more than a dozen community members to keep the peace. Shawn Robinson said Foster started by reaching out to people like him in every southwest Fresno neighborhood because they’re the only ones who can connect with gang members.


“Right now we are dealing with adolescents that got guns, we’re not dealing with grownups,” Robinson said. “I was once one of them so I can blatantly go direct to the source.  We go right to the neighborhoods where the problems consist at.”


Foster’s past gang affiliations give him credibility. “One of the criteria is you had to have once been a very violent individual that has changed your life so you can be the example of change,” Foster said. "People don’t believe you. Once you say that you’ve changed the street is watching to critique it.”  


Fresno Police Captain Mark Salazar said that since he started working in southwest Fresno in 2016, gun violence has gone down more than 40 percent. 


Credit Monica Velez / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Fresno Police Captain Mark Salazar and community leader Joby Jones at the Hinton Center in southwest Fresno speaking to youth.

“What we have in southwest Fresno is tremendous momentum that I have never seen in my 23-year career,” Salazar said. “Because of that momentum and because of us working together that’s why shootings are down. Typically you’ll hear law enforcement say that because of their strategies and tactics, crime is down. I credit our partnerships.” 


Salazar attributes much of the decrease in gun violence to people like Foster.


“A guy like Aaron [Foster], again he’s a friend of mine, he can reach people that I can’t, even my officers can’t,” Salazar said. “He can reach people that the pastors can’t reach. And so long as we recognize that and appreciate that I think it goes a long way.”


Salazar also works closely with Joby Jones, another community leader in the fight against gun violence in southwest Fresno. Jones works with young kids at the Hinton Center on South Fairview and East Church.


“So we run an after-school program, boxing, just a safe place for them. I know a lot of them deal with anger so I think we get a boxing ring somewhere, they just come get their frustrations out. So that helps a lot.” 


Many of these kids are at risk of being recruited into gangs, Jones said. That’s why they come here. Some of these kids are bullied, some don’t have parents, or their family members have been murdered, he said.


Credit Monica Velez / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Kids jumping rope in the Hinton Center in southwest Fresno after school.

“And a lot of times our kids just need somebody just to be around,” Jones said. “That’s one thing about the streets, they’re around you all the time, they feeding into you and eventually because they’re always there you’ll gravitate toward that stuff.”


Instead, Jones said he tries to point young people in a positive direction. 


Foster said having a positive relationship with law enforcement is part of what it takes to stop gun violence.


“But without people like Shawn Robinson, Joby Jones, myself and a handful of others that I can’t think of off the top of my head, southwest Fresno would be a war zone right now,” Foster said. “That’s not what I think. That’s what I absolutely know.” 

Monica Velez was a reporter at Valley Public Radio. She started out as a print reporter covering health issues in Merced County at the Merced Sun-Star.