Nontraditional crime prevention gets some traction in Mpls., St. Paul

A woman gestures as she sits at a conference table with two men.
Sasha Cotton, who directs the Minneapolis violence prevention office, (center) leads a violence prevention steering committee meeting Tuesday, Feb. 4. Also pictured are Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo (right) and Mayor Jacob Frey.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Hoping to prevent a repeat of last year’s gun violence, Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders are expanding anti-crime strategies that focus more on community-based solutions and public health than on beefing up police patrols.

Mayors in both cities won increases in police budgets for 2020 but also heard calls from communities suffering from most of the gun violence to fund alternatives to patrol-based crime fighting.

In Minneapolis, that led to the City Council in December backing $300,000 to expand the Group Violence Intervention program, part of the city’s newly-formed Office of Violence Prevention.

The intervention program works to identify people who are most likely to commit gun violence or be in the middle of a conflict and get police and community leaders to reach out to them. The newly budgeted funds will help pay to expand the program into south Minneapolis and buy uniforms and bulletproof vests for outreach workers.

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Supporters say GVI is showing some positive signs. In 2016, members of the project’s target group were involved in more than 90 shootings. Since then, the number of shootings among these groups continued to fall. In 2019, there were fewer than 30, said Sasha Cotton, who directs the Minneapolis violence prevention office.

“We believe that it is a tool that’s helping to reduce the number of people who are shot due to gun violence from gangs and groups, although we know it is imperfect and that there’s still work to be done,” Cotton said.

While the number of shootings among people targeted by the intervention program stayed level between 2018 and 2019, police statistics show the overall number of people wounded or killed by gunfire in the city increased from 244 to 269.

Preliminary data show that in 2019, 48 people in Minneapolis died from homicide, a 55 percent increase compared to the previous year. Thirty nine of homicide victims died from gunshot wounds. In addition, two people, Mario Benjamin and Chaisher Fong Vue, were shot to death by Minneapolis police. Both cases are under investigation.

St. Paul saw homicides double between 2018 and 2019. Thirty people were killed in 2019, not including Ronald Kerry Davis, who was fatally shot by a St. Paul police officer in September.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter resisted calls to boost police staffing and instead included an additional $1.5 million in community-based anti-violence programs in the 2020 budget. The mayor’s plan included $300,000 for a program called the Healing Streets Project.

The program, which started in earnest last fall, extends violence prevention outreach into schools and hospitals and offers grief counseling for victims of gun violence.

A man wearing glasses sitting at a conference table.
Danny Givens Jr. is the director of Healing Streets Project. The program extends violence prevention outreach into schools and hospitals and offers grief counseling for victims of gun violence.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“It’s a community-based, healing centered approach to ending and or reducing gun violence or cyclical or retaliatory violence in the community,” said Danny Givens, the project’s director.

Healing Streets identifies community leaders who can relate directly to the populations most impacted by gun violence, people Givens calls “neighborhood change agents.”

The project also employs the use of community health workers who respond to traumatic events. Givens said the workers were used in at least one St. Paul shooting in the North End, arriving as people gathered for an impromptu vigil that the police struggled to contain.

“Community health responders were able to show up, be present, help facilitate a space that was conducive for grief but then to identify, ‘who are the persons most in need of care here?’” he said.

The Healing Streets approach is similar to Minneapolis’ effort — Givens and Cotton grew up together and the two programs leaders are longtime friends — though it remains in its early stages. Givens said Healing Streets will slowly roll out initiatives in the new year.