State your case: Is paying people to stop shooting effective?

The Dream Keeper Fellowship will give high-risk individuals $300 a month to avoid violence


A new program out of San Francisco aims to decrease gun violence by paying high-risk individuals at least $300 a month to stay out of trouble. Participants in the Dream Keeper Fellowship are individuals who are most likely to shoot someone and can earn up to an additional $200 a month by hitting certain milestones. The theory is that the stipends will lead criminals to get help, avoid violence and stay engaged. Participants will also be paired with life coaches who will help guide them. 

Is this an effective mechanism to decrease gun crime and shootings? Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinion below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

The Dream Keeper Fellowship will pay participants to avoid violence.
The Dream Keeper Fellowship will pay participants to avoid violence.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: This approach is not new. Similar schemes have been used at other agencies and the program is modeled after the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship in Richmond, California. That program, which pays their most likely shooters $1,000 a month not to shoot each other, has shown positive results, with shootings and homicides down by approximately 50% since they started the program in 2010.

I'm not inclined to give money for nothing, but in this case, it may make sense, providing it works.

As an institution, law enforcement has tried several strategies to suppress crime and violence. Some started well, such as “stop and frisk” in New York, in the 1990s in accordance with the doctrine of Terry vs Ohio.

Great impact was made by using reasonable suspicion based on articulated observations that supported the stops. Homicides plummeted as the stop and frisks climbed. Then somewhere, it was alleged that the Terry standard was not met over time and the program disintegrated.

Operation Ceasefire was an excellent program that used a 360-approach to shootings and homicides with firearms in Boston in 1995. They used an approach that included not only police but schools, public health, Harvard University research teams, parole and probation, district attorneys, courts and the community. We need more programs that are designed to address the underlying and associated issues. While we wait for evidence-based studies, why not try something different?

Joel Shults: You make a reasonable academic case for the practice, Jim. Of course, I, like probably 99% of the cops reading this, want to just slap my forehead, roll my eyes, and mutter whatever vulgarism equates to my grandmother’s lament: “the world going to hell in a handbasket.” But, as in our previous vigorous debates, I want to keep an open mind. After giving the matter deep consideration I slapped my forehead, rolled my eyes, and muttered something like “what the hell?”

There are plenty of criminological theories including the rational theory that says that wrong-doers calculate the cost of their crimes relative to the reward and make a rational decision. The bank has a lot of money. I like money. But if I rob the bank and get caught, I will be in prison where I can’t use the money. But the risks of getting caught are small enough that the potential of becoming an instant millionaire makes it worthwhile. Stick ‘em up. (I said the theory is that the decision is rational, not that the decision is smart).

So, giving incentives for good behavior and disincentives for bad behavior is a foundational principle and one most of us were raised on: cookie jar versus a spanking and no cookie until I ate my vegetables.

What gets backward in the money-for-not-murdering plan is that the cash reward can only be earned if you are already an offender or associated with a criminal gang. Many businesses around the world have been paying people not to smash their windows or burn their buildings or break their kneecaps. Seems to be effective in the short term, while buying trouble in the long term. We’ve all seen the little boy in the grocery store screaming until mommy promises the candy bar if he hushes up. The lesson: misbehavior earns candy.

Jim Dudley: Of course, you make good points, Joel, but realize we have become surrogate guardians for those likely to commit crime. 

Why is it that some people commit crimes, while the majority do not? I think it goes back to learning morals and values from early childhood. 

It may be a little late in life to introduce behaviors that are selfless and for the greater good. This is someone’s idea of community-based intervention. It goes back to theories like the “6% solution” where (I’m paraphrasing big-time) the theory was that 50% of first-time juvenile offenders would stop due to their own nature, guilt, or remorse, while 6% are thought to be destined for hardcore adult criminality. Another 30% need some type of intervention and maybe 14% require several interventions before they graduate to adult crime life. 

The idea to pay offenders not to offend is not new. We do it for that last 44%. Some cities are offering cash to stop fatal behavior. In truth, restorative justice or alternative courts have held convictions, jail time and criminal records in abeyance for good behavior. 

The jurisdictions that tried these cash incentive programs claim 45%-77% effective rates. I say they’re worth a shot (no pun intended). 

Joel Shults: Jim, I guess part of the reason that most people will think this plan is problematic is the optics of the thing. Remember The Little Red Hen who had some grain and offered bread to anyone who could help harvest, or thresh, or bake the ingredients to make the bread? No one wanted to help, but everyone wanted the bread. This program gives the bread (no 70s pun intended) to those who didn't toil. 

I might also argue that if we look at potential shooters, we should find a lot of common roots to attack. But apparently, we're not interested in looking at answers to the really hard questions, just the easy ones that make handing out cash seem to make sense – anything but personal responsibility. And don't even get me started about defunding law enforcement while we're potentially funding felons! Maybe the studies lend credence to the success of the program, but my gut tells me different.

NEXT: How consent to search helped this city reduce gun violence

Police1 readers respond

  • Someone who wants to commit violence or a crime of any kind will carry that out if that's what they have made up their mind to do, but if you want to curtail or reduce crime then instead of paying criminals to not commit crime why don't we as a society start to forgive their past transgressions/criminal records and start hiring them. Once someone has served their time for the crime that they once committed their slate is truly wiped clean and they should be hired like anybody else so that they can become productive citizens/taxpayers and informed voters who are then able to buy into the American dream. People are less likely to break into someone else's home if they are a homeowner themselves and you have more respect for the working class if you are part of that working class. Don't pay a felon to not be a felon but hire them to be productive citizens who then can contribute to the positiveness of their community and their own self-worth. 
  • I would side with Joel without blinking an eye. As he made mention, with this cash for not shooting program, there is zero emphasis on personal responsibility. You do not hand out rewards, or more like bribes, to solicit abstinence from criminal behavior. Initially, it is entirely unethical and sends a poor message to would-be offenders. In addition, in what kind of society do we live in that we think we should have to pay people to behave morally and adhere to the law? This is an ignorant incentive plan that should never receive consideration much less implementation.

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