If it’s 2 a.m. and a gang member wants to escape a planned shooting, Ferome Brown will answer their call and send a ride. If a student at Patrick Henry High School stops smiling in the hallway, Byron Hawkins will ask what’s going on. If a gunshot victim in a hospital bed wants to make a change, Farji Shaheer will help secure a job at Smashburger.
In the adopted 2019 budget, council members redirected part of a proposed budget increase for the Minneapolis Police Department into violence prevention strategies like these. One pilot program expanding citywide will send mental health professionals out on 911 calls. Other one-time cash infusions are now ongoing year after year, aiming to stop violence through hospitals or first-time gun offenses. A new Office of Violence Prevention will oversee the strategies.
“The Office of Violence Prevention is not a want. It is critically necessary,” said Council Member Phillipe Cunningham. “Research tells us that the greater intensity of the interventions, the larger reduction we see in crime and violence.”
‘Give me that’ gun
Every time an ambulance carrying a gunshot victim arrives at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), Farji Shaheer gets a text. As program director of the Next-Step Youth Violence Prevention Program, he speaks with crying family members, works to piece together what happened, and tries to quickly connect with patients before they kick him out of the room.
“You can’t be afraid. You have to be as genuine as possible,” he said.
He offers to help victims recover lost wages, pay hospital bills, or relocate to a safer location. People often accept a pair of shoes, so they don’t have to wear fuzzy hospital socks on a bus ride home.
After work, Shaheer said he’ll often sit outside Wendy’s House of Soul and talk to people he’s met at the hospital.
“This is my life, it doesn’t stop for me,” he said. “I call myself an active agent of change.”
One former patient called Shaheer in a rage, saying he’d just been jumped downtown and was going to “blow the dude’s head off” in retaliation. Shaheer told him to calm down and meet him outside the hospital. When the man arrived, Shaheer commanded him to get the gun off his hip.
“Give me that. It’s just going to put you in more danger,” he said. Shaheer took off his skull cap, the man placed the gun inside, and Shaheer took the gun straight to hospital security. He said he’s taken two other guns off former patients.
National data show that among people who are hospitalized with a violent injury, 40 percent come back within five years with another violent injury and see a 20 percent mortality rate, said Josh Peterson, Minneapolis senior public health specialist. But since the program launched at HCMC in mid-2016, just five out of about 180 participants have returned with an injury, he said. The program recently expanded to North Memorial Health Hospital.
In the 2019 budget, Next-Step’s one-time funding of $130,000 has switched to ongoing funding.
‘What’s wrong, you’re not smiling?’
At Patrick Henry High, Byron Hawkins said he can be the first to know if a fight is going to break out, because a student might tip him off and ask for help. Throughout the day, outreach workers from the Youth Coordinating Board take laps through the halls or help in classes with substitute teachers.
“What’s wrong, you’re not smiling?” Hawkins asked one student.
If you greet students often enough, eventually they start opening up to you, he said. He recently launched the first-ever drum battle between Patrick Henry and his new drumline at North High School. In the hallway, he reminded students about practice that afternoon.
“The main thing to prevent a lot of this stuff is just to get to know them,” he said.
“I have such a heart for this,” said outreach worker Marraya Giller. She checked in with a student who was back in school after witnessing her brother accidentally shot in crossfire.
“If they’re angry, 90 percent of the time it’s a deeper problem,” she said.
In the 2019 budget, $40,000 in one-time funding will support part-time youth outreach workers in the Seward and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods.
‘Safe, alive and out of prison’
Another initiative aims to stop “group” violence by gangs, cousins or friends. Once a quarter, about 30 people on probation deemed most likely to shoot or be shot convene for a meal and a serious talk. They personally meet the mayor and Hennepin County Attorney, they hear Bunny Beeks talk about the stray bullet that killed her mother, and they meet Ferome Brown, their new 24-hour contact for help. If police anticipate retaliation for a shooting, they might make a personal visit to the next likely shooter. Participants learn that police are watching them, but help is available.
Their solutions are not cookie-cutter, said Sasha Cotton, Group Violence Intervention Manager. Group members might want to start a business, move away, get a college degree, pay fines to reinstate a driver’s license, or get out of town for a couple of days while staff help mediate a beef.
“The goal and focus of our project is to keep people safe, alive and out of prison,” Cotton said. “…Most active shooters are only really active for about two years. If we can try to sustain relationships with them for the duration of that really high-risk period, and also try to help them plug into social things like employment and education, we make the community safer.”
In the 2019 budget, a new Office of Violence Prevention would oversee a $70,000 expansion of Group Violence Intervention. The new Office would have one-time funding of $116,000 and ongoing funding of $457,000.
‘Not a crime to be mentally ill’
When a 911 call came from a woman scratching her body in anxiety, Officer Colleen Ryan arrived in an unmarked squad with Nils Dybvig, a county senior psychiatric social worker. Rather than immediately transport the woman to the hospital, as is typical in similar situations, the team stayed for a while and talked to her. At the woman’s suggestion, they played Yahtzee until she was calm. The Co-Responder unit can spend time with callers that would be unthinkable for a traditional police officer, following up later in the week and connecting people to therapy and other services.
“It makes sense to bring an expert on these calls,” Ryan said, noting that police often try to simultaneously serve as cop, social worker and parent. “…At the end of the day, it’s not a crime to be mentally ill.”
In the 2019 budget, the Co-Responder Program will expand to all precincts in the city.
Trying ‘something different’
City Attorney Susan Segal said her staff noticed they were often prosecuting young people for carrying a gun without a permit as a first adult offense. Further research revealed the young people were highly likely to return with a more serious violent offense, at a 70 percent recidivism rate within 10 years.
“It seemed to me, let’s try something different because what we’re doing now doesn’t really work,” Segal said. “…All we were doing was helping feed the criminal justice system, based on the data we were getting.”
Qualifying offenders can drop the charge in exchange for completing a program at Urban Ventures that covers issues like anger and trauma.
In the 2019 budget, one-time funding of $35,000 becomes ongoing funding for Pathways: Community-based Programming for Gross Misdemeanor Weapons Offenses.
At Patrick Henry High School, outreach worker James Everett said he could never take the space of a police officer. Officers keep them safe and value the youth workers, he said, noting the Chief’s Award of Merit. He hopes to see foundations step up to generate larger investments in youth outreach.
“The question needs to be, why is this not a citywide program?” he said.
In a budget markup session on Nov. 30, Council Members Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher proposed a reduction to the MPD budget from a 2.8 percent increase to a 2.2 percent increase. Scrapping an idea to hire civilian investigators and free up more sworn officers for patrol, they decided to broadly tackle public safety under a new Office of Violence Prevention.
Along with the aforementioned programs, ongoing funding is now dedicated to the Domestic Violence Outreach Program. A new city position would focus on race and equity, more funding would cover legal services for immigrants and refugee residents, an additional case investigator would work in the Office of Police Conduct Review, and more funding would help enforce the city’s minimum wage and sick and safe time laws. A separate budget amendment proposed by Council Member Andrew Johnson would create a city workgroup to explore alternate ways of dispatching 911 calls, perhaps by sending people other than police officers for mental health crises or substance abuse calls.
Council Members Lisa Goodman and Linea Palmisano voted against the budget change. Palmisano noted it would reduce the police appropriation by more than $1 million, and Goodman said she was blindsided by the proposal and disappointed it didn’t include funding for downtown. Other council members in attendance were supportive of the shift in funding.
Council President Lisa Bender said the council has added millions to the traditional police budget over the years. Ongoing violence prevention funding would give the city time to craft longer-term strategies, she said.
“It’s a proactive step, not a punitive one, that still points us towards public safety,” said Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.
Violence prevention workers repeatedly emphasized the value of relationships in their work. Cotton likened the work to that of a brother or aunt, providing social safety nets that some can find in their families.
Shaheer said he could buy his patients anything, and give them a place to live, but it “doesn’t mean jack” unless they know they are valued.
“If you can connect with someone who does not value their life, and show them that they are valued, they will continue to come to you for guidance,” he said.