In Minneapolis, why the jump in homicides?

Scene of triple slaying in Minneapolis
Minneapolis police responded to a shooting at a corner market in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis earlier this month. The triple homicide shocked residents and city officials.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Seven men have been killed in Minneapolis so far this year, and city residents and police officials are at a loss to explain why. The spike in lethal violence is particularly mysterious considering that last year, the city saw a historic drop in homicide.

Earlier this month, Police Chief Tim Dolan and Mayor R.T. Rybak called a news conference to trumpet the city's 2009 crime statistics.

But the day before the event, three young men were gunned down at a corner market in the city's Seward neighborhood. The mayor and chief canceled the news conference. Since then, three more men have been killed.

Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen says the number of killings this month is horrific. They are also baffling, he says, because there hasn't been a related increase in other violent crimes.

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"We look very closely at our robbery numbers and our aggravated assault numbers -- both of which are down over the same period last year," said Allen. "And last year, both were down over the year, and the year before that."

Allen says police officers keep an eye on robberies and assaults because they can lead to retaliatory violence. Investigators and beat cops try to get to know the actors involved, and get help from other community members to intervene and cool down volatile situations.

R.T. Rybak, Tim Dolan
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (right) talks with Police Chief Tim Dolan before addressing the media about the triple homicide that took place the previous night at a corner grocery in south Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"That's the approach we use with homicides. We use it for serious [aggravated] assaults, shootings and so forth. That's one of the reasons why we've -- until this month -- had some tremendous success in addressing violent crime in the city," said Allen.

Last year, violent crime continued its downward trend in Minneapolis. Homicides in the city dropped from 40 in 2008 to 19 in 2009.

Homicide is hard to prevent. Allen says sometimes the difference between an aggravated assault and a homicide is determined by inches and seconds -- the accuracy of a bullet, or how quickly emergency responders can reach a victim.

Even though some people say police are smarter about crime prevention, they're not sure how much police work had to do with last year's drop in violence.

Gary Cunningham is the chief program officer of the Northwest Area Foundation. Before he joined the foundation, Cunningham headed two county agencies that focused on the health and well-being of African-Americans.

Cunningham says there are social factors and cycles responsible for the ebb and flow of violence, especially in north Minneapolis, where he grew up and has worked for much of his life. He says the combination of unemployment, broken families and a prominent illegal drug trade make for a lethal mix.

"Men that have gotten out of prison and come back into the community ... have a higher rate of violence."

"Further exacerbating this is men that have gotten out of prison and come back into the community -- they have a higher rate of violence than other groups that haven't been to prison," he said.

Cunningham says ex-cons have to compete for already scarce resources, like jobs and housing. That competition with other young black men can lead to violence.

But what goes up, must come down. And Cunningham says this tragic cycle can also lead to periods of relative calm. He says sometimes so many young men aged 18-30 are in prison, there are few left in the community to cause trouble. Plus, he says various studies show that as men get older, they tend to change their attitudes.

"After men get to a certain age, over 35, their participation in the criminal justice system drops off significantly -- meaning they don't commit additional crimes," Cunningham said.

The spike in violence this month also includes a rare triple homicide which sent shock waves through the city and its east African immigrant communities. The victims were from Somalia and Ethiopia, and the two teenage suspects are Somali.

Professor Daniel Abebe, who teaches African studies at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, came to the U.S. from Ethiopia 40 years ago. He says the cooperation between the Somali community and the police, which resulted in the arrests of the suspects, is a silver lining to a very dark cloud.

But if the police department wants to gain the kind of access to the community that could help them prevent violence, Abebe says they need more Somali presence on the force.

"If they had a Somali police officer, they would have done a lot more in forging a positive relation with the community long, long before just this past month," said Abebe.

There are two Somali officers on the Minneapolis police force. Another Somali officer recently graduated from the academy, but was laid off due to city budget constraints.

Police officers have arrested suspects in six of the seven homicides committed so far this year. And investigators believe they are close to nabbing one more suspected killer.

When they do, police officials say they may call another news conference to announce their success in solving the cases. But in the relatively unpredictable world of crime, police are hoping they won't have to cancel the announcement.