Farji Shaheer stopped making hospital visits in mid-March, his critical face-to-face contacts with victims of violence halted by the social distancing brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
He was able to get back into HCMC in June, but by then the damage had been done.
“There was already a rash of shootings of individuals and murders of individuals that were being retaliated for,” said Shaheer, a violence prevention specialist with Next Step.
Homicide tallies that began inching above normal in the spring skyrocketed in the summer. From Memorial Day to Labor Day the city recorded 41 homicides, more than double the number in the same period in 2019.
City officials and police say the uptick is likely due to the usual summer spike in violence combined with the unprecedented economic downturn brought about by the pandemic. The number of shootings increased following the killing of George Floyd by police in May.
Next Step is one of several efforts by the city of Minneapolis to treat violence as a contagious disease. But during one of the most violent years in more than a decade, these public health initiatives to prevent retaliatory violence have been constrained by efforts to contain the outbreak of COVID-19.
The core mission of Next Step is to reduce the chances that a person will wind up back in the hospital or seek vengeance. During the months he was working outside the hospital, Shaheer had to try and connect with people remotely.
“When we’re dealing with a volatile population that doesn’t trust individuals, speaking to them by phone or try and make that connection via video chat was not as successful as what we expected it to be,” he said.
Next Step is not the only violence prevention program which had to adapt to pandemic restrictions. Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said the city’s Group Violence Initiative (GVI) had to temporarily suspend some in-person meetings.
“One of the strategies that we’ve used through the years of the program has been something called a ‘call-in,’” she said.
Despite the name, the ‘call-in,’ is actually an in-person gathering. GVI targets resources towards individuals involved in networks of people engaged in violence. The call-ins are sort of like an intervention.
“Leaders in the city and the county and in criminal justice talk to the young men who’ve been identified as either high risk of perpetrating violence or being a victim of violence,” Musicant said.
Musicant said the in-person call-ins resumed in May but were suspended again amid the unrest following the killing of George Floyd. Musicant says call-ins returned in mid-July. And she said remote services continued during that period.
But that's not the same as in-person interaction.
“We’ve had several months of not being able to use some of the key tools that were helpful for people to think about the consequences of violent acts and also the possibility for support to live a different life and to go a different path,” Musicant said.
David Squier Jones, a criminologist with the Minneapolis-based Center for Homicide Research, said the group violence model Minneapolis follows is typically highly effective. The pandemic, said Jones, weakened a key pillar of that approach, one based on in-person interaction. But another pillar of the model is deterrence. Group members must be certain that they'll be punished if they engage in violence.
"And if that certainty is eroded, or goes away, then it doesn't have that same deterrent approach," he said.
And that's where the police killing of George Floyd comes in, according to Jones.
Following the Memorial Day killing of Floyd, Jones said fewer people recognized Minneapolis police as a legitimate source of authority. Particularly in communities of color, he said, people are either reluctant to call police to report violence or they decide to find another way to respond to an attack on themselves or their loved ones.
"So there's the George Floyd effect, if you will,” he said. “Because the police department has lost most of their legitimacy."
Jones said other cities have faced similar situations following police killings of citizens.
Minneapolis has continued to fund public health-based violence prevention programs. The city council recently used money from the police budget to employ dozens of people called “violence interrupters.”
Lisa Clemons is a former Minneapolis police officer and a member of A Mother’s Love, an organization whose members conduct street-level outreach to crime victims, often at the scenes of violent assaults.
Clemons supports the GVI program and the hiring of violence interrupters. But she doesn’t like the council’s decision to take funds from the police department to pay for those efforts. Clemons said defunding or shifting money from MPD is hurting the police department, which she says is a vital part of crime-fighting.
“You want to cripple an agency to put crumbs on the plate of people that can’t possibly reduce this crime from those crumbs,” said Clemons.
Health commissioner Musicant said several dozen interrupters will begin working in the city later this month.
In the meantime, people like Latanya Black are taking to the streets calling for peace. Black is with Mothers Against Community Gun Violence which held a “peace walk” last weekend in Minneapolis. Her 23-year-old daughter Nia Black, was shot to death in St. Paul earlier this summer.
Black said she doesn’t know if the pandemic is responsible for the increase in violence. But she pleaded for people who are in distress brought on by the pandemic and are feeling like lashing out to seek help.
“If you are angry and if you’re upset that we find another way to channel that,” Black said. “There has to be a better and a different way of handling that kind of anger and pain.”