A man's hand is on a steering wheel and his worried eyes appear as a reflection in the rear view mirror of the car. Outside the car window is an urban neighborhood with houses, apartment complexes, and cars parked on the street.
Joseph “Church” Truehill heads to the scene of a shooting in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood in July to provide support as a violence interrupter. Truehill grew up in San Antonio and is intimately familiar with the neighborhood and its community. Credit: Florence Middleton

Every day, Joseph “Church” Truehill wears a set of diamond-studded chains around his neck. On one hangs a medallion of a sun, and at the center of the sun is a tiny photo collage of a young man smiling. It’s Lil Mike, Truehill’s younger brother. 

Truehill, an Oakland native with roots in the San Antonio neighborhood, lost his brother to gun violence in 2006 when Lil Mike was 19. He was shot in the back while riding his friend’s bike. After the shooting, Truehill’s friends spoke of retaliation and going into the streets with weapons.

“Everybody was in my ear,” Truehill said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what I needed. I needed to grieve and just process what was going on.”

In October 2022, Truehill lost another family member to gun violence in West Oakland. After his father confronted a friend from church about money he was owed, the friend shot him, and he died. The dispute, Truehill said, was over $40.

This time, Truehill received a different kind of support.

The City of Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention—which Truehill now works for as a violence interrupter through Trybe, Inc., one of their partner organizations—got involved. Trybe gave him two months off work, and DVP and Trybe assigned him a therapist at different points. To this day, DVP, Trybe, and other organizations in the DVP network reach out at least once a week to check on his mental state.

“I appreciate it because, growing up in Oakland, I’m not used to stuff like that,” Truehill said. “People genuinely having your back or being able to find support—it felt good.”

When Lil Mike died, Truehill said he struggled to process the trauma in any way except through anger. When his father died, with the therapists and support from the DVP network, he was in a much better place.

A man stands under a red pop-up shade as the golden sun lights up his face and he listens to someone standing nearby. He is surrounded by three other people whose faces are obscured by shadows from the sun.
Truehill chats with other attendees at the Department of Violence Prevention’s Town Nights in San Antonio Park on July 14. Truehill has known many of the staff members, volunteers, and attendees for much of his life. Credit: Florence Middleton

That kind of support is at risk. At a time when violent crime in Oakland has increased by 15% compared to this time last year, according to the police, the city’s initiative aimed at preventing violent crime before it happens is facing $4.4 million in budget cuts. Mayor Thao and the Oakland City Council finalized these cuts and others at the end of June when they passed the city’s next two-year spending plan designed to address a historic budget deficit.

Now, the department is faced with figuring out exactly what to cut, and by how much, to whittle its budget down by that amount.

As the department faces an even leaner future, we followed Truehill in his work as one of the DVP’s violence interrupters to understand how budget cuts to this agency could impact the Oaklanders it aims to help protect.

Thick, diamond-studded chains hang around a person's neck. One chain has the letters "YB GANG" and another holds a medallion of a sun with a photo collage in its center. The photo collage is of a young man. The person is wearing a baby blue t-shirt.
Truehill wears a necklace to remember the rap group, Yellow Bus Gang, he and his younger brother, Lil Mike, were in before Lil Mike was killed in 2006. “Every time somebody would see us, it would be like the negative effect of what gangs do,” Truehill said. “So what [Lil Mike] tried to do is change the narrative of the way people looked at us.” They repurposed the word “gang” to be an acronym for “Gifted Amazing Neverending Greatness.” Credit: Florence Middleton

At night, a memorial of more than approximately 50 candles on a sidewalk dimly light up a photo of a couple hanging from a fence.
A candlelight vigil on July 25 in front of the home where a man and woman were found shot to death on 89th Avenue in East Oakland. The two deaths were part of a particularly tragic day when Oakland suffered four homicides in 10 hours on July 19. Credit: Florence Middleton 

Pushed into violence interruption

The DVP was created in 2017 at the urging of a former Oakland City Councilmember who was tragically familiar with the grief and destruction of gun violence. Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represented District 3 at the time, lost her grandson in 2015 after he was shot and killed during an attempted robbery in West Oakland. She pushed a divided council to take a new approach to addressing Oakland’s violence and proposed, in partnership with the council president, the creation of the Department of Violence Prevention. Two years after achieving her vision, McElhaney’s only child was shot and killed near his college campus in Los Angeles. 

Today, the DVP’s mission is to reduce five types of harm in Oakland: shootings and homicides, intimate partner violence, commercial sexual exploitation, trauma associated with cold cases, and community trauma associated with ongoing violence.

Soft evening light falls on a house with a car in the driveway and a row of flowers that line the front yard fence. A memorial with a collage of photos of a young girl on it hangs from the fence, and above the photos are purple wooden letters spelling out the name Shamara, followed by a heart.
A memorial in front of the home where Shamara Young lived on July 27. Young was killed in 2021 when she was 15 years old. Young’s stepfather made the wooden sign with her name and the neighbors maintain the flowers. Credit: Florence Middleton

The department, whose model is largely based on partnering with local organizations that are rooted in the Oakland community, responds to incidents like shootings and domestic violence after they happen, and it also works towards “interrupting” violence or addressing the root causes to stop it before it occurs. It supports victims as well as others impacted by violence, from victims’ families to entire communities.

In his lifetime, Truehill estimates that he has lost more than 200 people close to him. So far this year, he has attended 14 funerals for people he considers family. Nine of them died after shootings.

An old black and white photo of four young boys, around middle school age, with their arms around each others' shoulders. They have a range of expressions from big smiles to softer smiles. The photo has been folded and vertical crease lines mark the image.
Truehill, second from the right, poses with his best friends at the time—Rodney, Kerwin, and Carl, from left to right—at the Back to School Night dance in 1996 at Calvin Simmons Middle School on 35th Avenue. Courtesy of Joseph “Church” Truehill
Five men standing side by side pose for a camera in an old, pixelated photo. The men wear baggy jeans and black and yellow t-shirts that say, "Yellow Bus Gang" in graffiti font.
Truehill, second from the right, with the Yellow Bus Gang in 2006 in Funktown (San Antonio area) shortly after Lil Mike was killed by gun violence. The rap group—from left to right, Baby Jamaica, Red, J’Roc, Truehill, and Twani Bo—was getting ready to go to San Francisco to participate in a car show with Snoop Dogg. Courtesy of Joseph “Church” Truehill

In 2014, Truehill started organizing peace walks, making flyers, and spreading the word on social media after shootings occurred to gather community members and walk through impacted neighborhoods. After the peace walks would end, he noticed people still needed a space to grieve, so he created healing circles. The healing circles, Truehill said, are places where anyone can show up and be themselves. It’s a space where they can process trauma or talk about everyday life like getting a job and surviving. 

In 2021, Trybe, Inc.—a non-profit based in the San Antonio neighborhood that works to break the cycle of violence through supporting youth and families, and an organization in the DVP network—offered Truehill a role on their team as a violence interrupter, a position funded by a contract with the DVP. He saw it as a natural extension of the work he was already doing.

A series of five portraits, five men stand in a variety of settings: in front of a brick wall, an urban street, an event space, a park with trees, and a basketball court.
Trybe team members who work towards violence intervention and prevention in a variety of roles, from left to right: Hector Cruz, lead ambassador and operations manager; Elias Cruz, violence interrupter; Victor Jacobs, food distribution manager; Lavell Jackson, violence interrupter; Wilson Nguyen, ambassador. The violence interrupters respond to shootings and homicides and support community events, the ambassadors ensure the San Antonio Park area is safe and support community members with needs like housing, and the food distribution manager helps ensure people in need have access to food through meal drop-offs and food drives. Credit: Florence Middleton

As the sun was setting on Friday, July 14, Truehill pulled out his phone to check his messages. He received a notification from the DVP about a shooting on 11th Avenue and East 18th Street. He jumped into a Trybe work van covered in graffiti art and drove to the shooting scene. 

When he arrived, law enforcement had roped off the area with yellow caution tape. Police officers surrounded the parked vehicle where the victim had been shot while sitting in his car, allegedly during an attempted robbery. The victim had already been transported to Highland Hospital.

As the sun is setting and the light is getting dim, police vehicles block a residential street. One vehicle has its lights on.
Oakland police surround the 1800 block of 11th Avenue in Oakland where a man was shot in his parked car on July 14. Credit: Florence Middleton 

While Truehill’s colleagues were heading to the hospital to meet the victim, Truehill stayed at the scene. He waited for family members to arrive searching for answers. He waited for anyone involved in the shooting or looking to retaliate to show up. And he waited to see if the shooting would turn into a homicide—that is, if the victim would survive. 

“A violence interrupter is pretty much a pastor, a peacemaker, a therapist, a friend, and family all in one,” Truehill said.

He spoke to concerned community members who came by, including the woman who found the victim after he was shot and a man who said he knew Truehill. Truehill had showed up for him in the past, the neighbor said, after he had been shot in a different attempted robbery just blocks away.

A man gestures with his hand as he speaks to two individuals on the corner of a street. The woman appears to be intently listening to the man, and the third individual - a man with his back to the camera - listens.
Truehill speaks with a community member who found the man who was shot, center, and the victim’s brother, right, after they arrived at the scene looking for more information on July 14. Credit: Florence Middleton

The victim’s brother arrived, and Truehill shared with him examples of services the DVP network could offer: therapy for the victim and his family, financial support, and relocation services if they no longer felt safe in their home. They exchanged contact information, and Truehill left.

“People think the work is the event when we respond,” said Kentrell Killens, DVP’s interim chief of violence prevention. “That’s when the work begins.”

Supporting Chalinda Hatcher’s journey to a safe space

It’s been two years since Shamara Young died, but in late July, there were still fresh flowers lining the sidewalk in front of her home in East Oakland. Above the bouquets, purple, wooden letters spelling out her name hung from the fence. Her mother, Chalinda Hatcher, sat on the porch.

“Without them, I don’t think I would have made it through the whole ordeal. I’m almost certain I would not have made it through mentally,” Hatcher said, referring to the support she received from multiple violence interrupters with the DVP after her daughter died. “I definitely wouldn’t be here talking with you.”

Hatcher’s 15-year-old daughter was murdered in October 2021 during a road rage incident on Bancroft Avenue. Young was in the passenger seat when she was shot by someone in the other car. She was taken to Highland Hospital but did not survive.

A woman with a stoic expression on her face sits on a house's front porch. The porch is white and is framed by green shrubs.
Chalina Hatcher at her Oakland home on July 27, two years after her daughter was killed. “It’s support from a city you feel that have totally let you down,” Hatcher said, referring to the DVP services she received after her daughter died. “I do think Oakland has the people down, way down.” Credit: Florence Middleton

Truehill got the call that Young had been shot when she was still on the way to the hospital, but it wasn’t a work call. They were family friends, and a relative of Hatcher’s called Truehill immediately. 

Truehill met Hatcher and her family at the hospital where Young was pronounced deceased on arrival, and he stayed with them until 5 a.m. That morning, he connected Hatcher to another violence interrupter who could support her long-term, Daryle Allums, and to Trybe for mental health resources. And he ordered Hatcher’s family a big meal from DoorDash. 

“It was food galore. We got more food than we ever had in our life,” said Hatcher, referring to the meals her family received through DVP the two weeks following Young’s death, starting with Truehill’s DoorDash order.

Throughout those first two weeks, DVP checked on Hatcher every day, she recalled. She hadn’t had much prior experience with death. When she was overwhelmed with the logistics of planning candlelight vigils and the funeral and writing an obituary, Allums was there to help.

“Even though I was so frantic and so all over the place, he kept telling me, ‘I got you. I got you,’” Hatcher said. 

Allums helped Hatcher with funeral-related costs, and a gesture that stood out to her was when someone from DVP took her to get a manicure and pedicure before the funeral—a moment when she felt cared for.

One month after Young’s death, Hatcher and loved ones celebrated Young’s birthday. Right before Young died, she and Hatcher had started planning her sweet 16. The hardest part, Hatcher said, was going from planning a birthday to planning a funeral for her child. In November—Young’s birthday month—Truehill invited Hatcher to Trybe’s annual retreat. She went. It was the first time she had the space to fully grieve.

A woman's hand holds on to a fence. To the right of her hand is a memorial with photos of a young girl at different stages of her life under approximately age five, a cut out of a purple cartoon character, and a weathered, red ribbon that states, "You will be missed."
Hatcher has received ongoing support from the DVP network since her daughter’s death nearly two years ago. Young’s memorial also continues to live on outside her home. Credit: Florence Middleton

Over the long term, Hatcher said, DVP supported her with giveaways like backpack drives for her two sons, inviting her to Christmas events and connecting her to a support group for mothers who have lost a child. Even now, she said, DVP folks still check on her, and she’s looking forward to attending Trybe’s next retreat this November.

“If I didn’t have DVP and Trybe and stuff, I might be in retaliation mode because I didn’t get help that I needed back then…I would have been so buried in anger,” Hatcher said. “I’m not perfect mentally. No. But I’m in a safe space.”

Town Nights and Buckets Not Bullets: offering fun, safe spaces to hang out

Much of DVP’s work is trying to get ahead of violence before it happens. Since most shootings in Oakland happen during summer, that’s when the agency is at its busiest.

On the evening of July 14 in San Antonio Park, it was 83 degrees outside, the DJ was bumping Kendrick Lamar’s DNA, and vendors were preparing 1,000 free meals and bottomless nachos for a crowd of San Antonio residents and friends. Trybe was hosting a Town Nights event.

A man standing in the distance looks down and shakes the hand of another man sitting in an audience at an event.
Truehill greets a community member at Town Nights in San Antonio Park on July 14 as the event’s MC introduces the next performance. The event hosted local rappers, poets, dancers, a bounce house, crafts for kids, bingo for adults, and more. Credit: Florence Middleton
Three girls that appear to be teenagers are lit up by sunlight as they walk through a moderately crowded, outdoor event space. One girl is smiling, one girl is laughing, and one girl is holding her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun.
An estimated 1,000 community members attended the Town Nights event on July 14 at San Antonio Park, one of the event locations with the largest turnouts. Credit: Florence Middleton

DVP launched Town Nights—a series of six free events held throughout summer evenings at nine different locations, totaling 54 events—to provide safe spaces in Oakland neighborhoods most impacted by violence. The gatherings promote peace and simply offer a fun and celebratory place to gather with friends.

“It’s one of the safest places you can be in the area,” said Zachary Cohen, the violence prevention program planner with DVP who coordinates Town Nights.

That night, Truehill and other Trybe team members provided security for the event. Truehill also mingled and hugged friends he’s known for years, sampled appetizers including corn cakes topped with shrimp, and ran into his aunty, his mom’s sister. 

“You just look around and everybody’s smiling, and it’s like a great feeling of connective energy,” said Truehill.

A young man stands in front of a tented booth wearing a black beanie and a ski mask as someone takes a photo with their phone. The man is wearing on his back a baby sucking on a black and gold binky. The man is wearing the baby on his back using a blue, patterned baby-wearing wrap.
A resident poses for a photo on July 14 at the Fawohodze Inc. booth at Town Nights in San Antonio Park after learning how to carry his baby in the Ghanaian baby-wearing style. Credit: Florence Middleton

Later in July, Trybe sponsored a summer basketball day camp called Buckets Not Bullets to provide kids with an outlet for their energy. That morning, the Tassafaronga Gym on 85th Avenue in East Oakland filled with kids wearing Buckets Not Bullets t-shirts and dribbling basketballs around the court.

Before the drills began, the coaches opened the day with remarks acknowledging the high rate of gun violence these kids are growing up in. In the next generation, they said, things can change.

Three coaches stand in a gym as they speak in front of approximately 30 kids who are sitting on the gym floor with a few basketballs sitting on the floor around them.
Buckets Not Bullets was launched in 2017 by LoveLife Company, an organization Truehill founded with his family with the goal of “pushing positivity through the realization that no life is perfect but yours is worth appreciating,” according to their website. It organizes events like peace walks in Oakland and the Buckets Not Bullets basketball camp, some of which are hosted by Trybe. Credit: Florence Middleton
To the left, a young boy walks into the frame holding a basketball and drinking a juice box. To the right, a man reaches to place his hand on a boy's head.
At the Buckets Not Bullets camp in July, Coach Joshua Hatcher encouraged campers to enjoy the offerings at a snack table at the gym entrance. Credit: Florence Middleton

What comes next?

The DVP is deep in conversations about what will get cut from their violence prevention work to address the $4.4 million deficit that came down in the city’s latest budget. The agency does not make these decisions alone.

The DVP’s budget is funded by the city through two revenue streams: the city General Purpose Fund and Measure Z, also known as the Oakland Public Safety and Services Violence Prevention Act of 2014. 

Revenues through Measure Z account for 75% of the next two years of funding DVP will have to contract with partner organizations like Trybe. The Public Safety and Services Violence Prevention Oversight Commission (SSOC) oversees Measure Z spending.

A dimly lit room has a row of desks with computers, worn floors, a long empty folding table, and piles of full, plastic bags.
The Trybe office located at the top of San Antonio Park on July 20 serves as the headquarters for the organization’s violence prevention and intervention work. Credit: Florence Middleton

On July 18, the DVP submitted a memo to the SSOC outlining proposed cuts that could reach the mandatory $4.4 million reduction, highlighting four areas that it saw as possibly the most eligible: youth employment, adult employment, mini-grants (funding for residents and smaller service providers working to change norms around community violence), and healing and restorative activities, which includes funding to support families who have lost loved ones to violence—like the support Hatcher received.

DVP recommended these four areas for cuts because they are less directly aligned with Mayor Thao’s priorities of addressing group- and gun-related violence, sex trafficking, and school-based programs, said Jenny Linchey, DVP’s acting deputy chief of grants, programs, and evaluation. The DVP also considered what services are being funded through other agencies and departments, Linchey said, so that if their funding is cut, the impact might be less severe. If three of the four recommended services are eliminated, the deficit would be covered.

On July 24, the SSOC reviewed the DVP’s recommendations but did not support them. The SSOC expressed disappointment that the DVP proposed reducing partner organizations’ budgets. 

“We did not want to come here with any of the four recommendations. We would choose to keep everything whole. All of these are necessary services. It is our best thinking. And we recognize that at the end of tonight, we’re still going to have a deficit,” Killens responded. “It’s going to hurt regardless. Let’s just be honest. Period.”

On a white mantel rests a purple urn with a tiara on top of it and sports medals hanging around it. Peach and pink colored flowers, a snow globe with a baby elephant inside, and other small figurines surround the urn. Behind the urn is a portrait of a young her who appears to be a teenager. Around the snow globe hangs lanyard that reads, "African American honor..."
Shamara Young’s ashes rest in a purple urn on July 27 on a mantel in the home where she lived. On top of the urn is a tiara she got to wear for her sweet 16. Instead, she wore it during her funeral. Credit: Florence Middleton

The SSOC recommended a different approach. It recommended keeping the partner organizations’ budgets fully funded for nine months. While Measure Z does not fund DVP staff positions, the SSOC questioned the DVP’s staffing model and recommended it cover the remainder of the fiscal year and the budget deficit with potential philanthropic funding and by leaving vacant positions open.

That plan is risky, according to Linchey. The vacant positions need to be filled from the administrative roles to the violence interrupters on DVP staff, she said, and the DVP network does not currently have enough violence interrupters to support the city around the clock. She fears that fully funding partner contracts for nine months could backfire, draining the budget when additional funding after nine months is not guaranteed. Doing so, Linchey said, could result in even worse cuts for DVP partner organizations.

From the rear view, a man looks into the distance at a street blocked off with caution tape with police officers and police vehicles on the other side of the tape.
Truehill is concerned about what happens once the budget cuts are finalized. “It’s not just my job,” he said. “But it’s going to stop a lot of people from being able to get the help that they need.” According to Truehill, Trybe was able to divert a homeless encampment in the Garfield Park area by helping community members find housing with DVP funding. Credit: Florence Middleton

With all this uncertainty swirling, Truehill worries that he could be impacted. Trybe has three violence interrupters funded by DVP, and Truehill is the only full-time staffer on their team. 

“Once the cuts go through,” Truehill predicts, “I won’t be working no more.”

The DVP will submit their final funding cut recommendations on August 14 which will go through a series of reviews and discussions before the City Council meeting on September 20 where the plans will be finalized.

Beyond figuring out these immediate cuts, the DVP still has a major hurdle ahead. Measure Z sunsets on December 31, 2024. According to Linchey, the city will advocate for another ballot measure on the 2024 general election ballot to reauthorize Measure Z for another ten years. If Measure Z is not reauthorized, DVP services could be dramatically cut.

“It sucks because with the city, it’s like paper pushing what the numbers are saying, but they’re not actually standing on the corner and seeing the guy that got shot last year that’s saying, ‘Thank you,’” said Truehill.

If Truehill is impacted by the budget cuts, he expects he will continue doing the same work, he said, just without getting paid. He might try to start a non-profit; he’s not sure. 

“I won’t let it affect the way I look at things or how I help people,” Truehill said. “Whatever was meant to be will be.”

The sunlight glows orange as a young girl gets her face painted by a person sitting in front of her. Behind the face painter is a crowded basketball court with young people playing.
A young community member gets her face painted at a Town Nights event on July 14 at San Antonio Park. Credit: Florence Middleton

Florence Middleton is a visual journalist based in Oakland, California. She joined The Oaklandside as a photojournalist intern through a partnership with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. Florence’s work focuses on themes of community, women, and culture, and she has covered stories both locally and globally. Florence is the recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship and the 2023 Dorothea Lange Fellowship honorable mention.