STOCKTON, Calif. — Deadly shootings and gun violence in the United States have steadily risen since 2018. The Gun Violence Archive estimates 2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in at least the last two decades, with nearly 20,000 Americans who were shot and killed.
However, a city is seeing a decrease in gun violence and one group says it's because they're taking an unconventional approach to stop the shooting before it happens.
A group of men and women called Advance Peace Stockton. They are made of Neighborhood Change Associates who have come from the very streets they're now trying to help.
"I was young and I was gang banging, and I was selling drugs," said Burnice Redic, who now works for Advance Peace. "I was just like doing what I thought was necessary for me to be able to survive at the time."
For him and so many others, gangs and guns were a way to get ahead in a rough neighborhood.
"My mom would cry and ask me, 'Go play outside and see if you can get invited into one of your friend’s house for dinner because our food is gone.' I started breaking into people's houses to steal food," said Julian Balderama. "I became what you would call a criminal because I was hungry."
But those crimes of necessity escalated to shootings and to decades behind bars. A life of violence became the norm.
"I was one of the ones that was a cancer to Stockton. I made it bad," said Redic, looking back on his younger days.
Balderama worried he didn’t have it in him to escape, but his children were his wake-up call.
"There's nothing normal about burying all your childhood friends," he said. "There's nothing normal about having bullet wounds and 'Rest in Peace' tattoos of your friends all over your body, and there's nothing normal about your kids having to sleep on the floor because you don't know if, once again, gunshots ring out in your house and it’s going to be peppered with bullets."
These men are now using their experience on the streets for a new mission: to stop gun violence in the city of Stockton. They do that every day by coming together, talking about who in the community needs support, and then they hit the streets to help.
"Whoever is actively involved with shooting or getting shot," said Maurice Goens, of Advance Peace. "More than likely, though, that’s the same people, but we focus on them."
They spend hours walking the streets they grew up on. Whether it's taking someone to get a driver's license, bringing groceries to a family, or handing out masks and hand sanitizer, these men are the supports for people in the community who don't have anyone to turn to.
With the relationships they build over time, they also help mediate conflicts between gangs or groups in Stockton to help stop the shooting before it starts.
"We are the perfect messengers, you know, credible messengers," said Jefferson Stricklen. "You know, people know our lifestyles. People know our histories. They know that we're not out to take their freedom, just really give them different options for them to make better choices."
Sometimes, they’re caught in the middle of the very violence they try to prevent.
"The other day, I had a, I called it a misunderstanding," said Redic about a mediation he was working on that took a turn. "Some shooting happened and I was hit, and I'm OK," he said.
But even gunshot wounds do not deter these men, because they’ve seen success.
"I do it, you know, because I want them to be safe," said Redic of the people he's trying to help escape a life of violence. "I want them to grow and be something better, you know? So, I give what I got when I can to to help that on."
All their work is working. Since Advance Peace started in 2018, gun violence, murders, and assaults are down 47% in North Stockton, and murders involving guns are down 20% citywide.
This is also saving the city millions of dollars. Advance Peace said every homicide costs the city of Stockton or the county $1 million. So, each death they prevent through mediation, through giving options aside from violence is making a big impact.
"I feel this is mandatory," said Goens. "We have a duty as people from this community to give back to this community. We're giving hope to our people out there in the streets."
Hope for the next generation and healing for their own wounds all at once.
"This job is therapy," said Balderama. "It helps, too. It helps me to sleep at night, be able to look at myself in the mirror. I can't rewind time, but what I can do is focus on a lot of other people that are walking the same path I did, and make sure that things don't end up that way."
Advance Peace's model is now moving to other cities in California. They hope soon it will go nationwide.