RICHMOND -- With concerns mounting that their crime-intervention work may be undermined by a high-profile wiretap bust this summer, leaders with the city's Operation Ceasefire/Lifelines to Healing movement are working to restore trust in the streets.
"The concern is an obscured distinction between law enforcement and the community collaborators," said the Rev. Alvin Bernstine, a volunteer leader of Ceasefire. "What we do and our efforts to help steer people away from violence has nothing to do with law enforcement."
The lines between police and Ceasefire volunteers -- mostly clergy and activists who work to offer positive options to the city's most hardened young men and boys -- were blurred in late August when local and federal law enforcement officials held a joint news conference announcing one of the biggest wiretap busts in city history.
Code-named "Operation Exodus," the taps listened in on calls made by suspected members of "Deep C," a central Richmond gang. In all, 23 men were snared in the taps and arrested on a range of felony charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
The problem, Ceasefire leaders say, was that word on the street conflated them with the surreptitious police surveillance, in part because as Ceasefire worked with young men to find them jobs and training, police were surveilling the same young men -- unbeknownst to Ceasefire officials.
"Richmond police are a partner component of Ceasefire," said the Rev. Donnell Jones, another Ceasefire leader. "But Ceasefire is in no way involved or even aware of police investigations."
The big test will come later this year when Ceasefire conducts another "call in," events in which Ceasefire members use lists provided by the police to invite the 30 to 50 men identified as past and possibly future violent offenders. At these meetings, attendees are encouraged to leave behind their criminal lives and avail themselves of job training, education and employment programs.
Volunteers hope that those on the list will show up and participate in good faith. Police say they have lists of about 240 men and boys in the city whom they believe are responsible for nearly all the violent crime.
To get them to stop, through either a change in lifestyle or arrest, could be a key to continued crime reduction.
"The positive options are right there in front of them," said Kellis Love, a Ceasefire volunteer who works at Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit that provides employment opportunities to Ceasefire participants. "For many of them, it works."
First launched in Boston in the mid-1990s, Operation Ceasefire is a violence-prevention strategy that uses volunteer community members, clergy, police and the District Attorney's Office to reach out to individuals deemed likely to commit violence. In recent years, the strategy has been adopted in numerous cities across the nation, often with subtle permutations tailored to a specific community.
Since early 2012, when members began routinely doing "night walks" through tough neighborhoods and holding call-ins with at-risk men and youths, violent crime has declined slightly, continuing a general downward trend since 2006.
But the surveillance operation, which began on the heels of a stretch of deadly violence earlier this year, could have a chilling effect on the program since word has spread among street networks. Police say they found through the wiretaps that men involved in Ceasefire were communicating with other felons, in some cases plotting murders.
Police and Ceasefire insist that the wiretaps were in no way related to the outreach work and meetings held with some of the men who were ultimately swept up in the investigation.
"Law enforcement is always going to be there because some people are going to choose to commit violence, and they'll be incarcerated," said Lt. Chuck Whitney, the department's liaison to Ceasefire. "But we must respect the privacy and the primacy of the service providers in the important outreach work they do."
Meanwhile, Ceasefire volunteers continue plugging away on the streets.
A brazen Tuesday afternoon drive-by in the Iron Triangle left two young men wounded, one critically, and police immediately reached out to Ceasefire leaders to help quell retaliation. Ceasefire leaders have scheduled night walks for every Friday this month.
"Our work is hard, and it will take sustained effort over a long period," Bernstine said. "But it's working."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.