What’s driving the violence?

MAD DADS staffers V.J. Smith and Joann Wade (at right) recruit volunteer Amber Jackson (left) and greet Tico Wesson (second from left) at a bus station near Lake & Chicago. Credit: Photos by Michelle Bruch

A shooting in the Warehouse District last fall continues to amaze law enforcement. Near the train platform at 5th & Hennepin on Sept. 12, an estimated 18 officers were patrolling the area. Bar closing time was winding down, and the streets were filled with at least 50 people.

“Somebody still pulled out a pistol and started firing,” said Deputy Chief Bruce Folkens.

The shooting — the result of a “prior beef,” police said — wounded six people.

Police, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and local leaders point to several deep-rooted factors driving gun violence in Minneapolis.

Poverty plays a role, according to VJ Smith of MAD DADS. When some young sons of single parents want the best tennis shoes or clothes, he said they take action.

“They steal, they rob, they do what they have to do to get that,” he said.

Smith said gun ownership is prevalent among young men involved with gangs or cliques who may carry guns to protect themselves. With guns priced at $50 and up, guns are easier to obtain than books for college, he said.

MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder) works with kids coming out of probation.

“Many of them have said they would like to stop using guns,” Smith said.

But he said they feel trapped — they have so many enemies in North Minneapolis, they either risk being caught unprotected, or caught by  police and convicted for carrying a gun.

He said men acquire guns through pawn shops, gun shows, the Internet, home break-ins or girlfriends who serve as buyers.

Deputy Chief Folkens said police seize about 700 guns a year, a number he said has remained fairly constant over time.

“What the difference is, is the willingness of folks to use those firearms has gone up,” he said.

The violence is attributable to more than gang activity, he said.

Traditional gangs have broken into a multitude of small groups, sometimes affiliated with a particular neighborhood, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

“Gang violence has changed profoundly,” he said. “It used to be fairly well-organized.”

In reviewing complaints the last few years, Freeman said he’s noticed guns are increasingly used to resolve disputes.

“In days past, people who disagree might use fists and fight,” he said. “Now almost universally you see the guns come out.”

Smith said he’s noticed the same shift in the past 10 years. Shootings arise over girls, drugs and robberies, he said.

“People who do fight, and fight fair, get shot,” Smith said. “Many of us would have been dead a long time ago if we fought the way they fight now.”

A single investigative unit now handles all gun violence cases in order to piece together patterns of retaliatory gun violence. People are continually appearing in the system as both suspects and victims, Folkens said, which allows investigators to put cases together. By analyzing shell casings, they’re discovering that a single gun can be involved in a number of different crimes, with a small percentage of the population driving the crime stats.

“One person can create a multitude of cases,” he said.

Freeman said he’s also noticed a disturbing increase in guns used in domestic violence incidents, with women increasingly pistol whipped or threatened with a gun. Domestic aggravated assaults have increased nearly 6 percent from the prior year.

Folkens said police are partnering with other organizations to intervene in youth exposure to violence. The goal is that “violence isn’t normal to them, it should be abnormal to them,” Folkens said. “Violence is a learned behavior.”

Research shows a strong association between a young person’s early exposure to violence and the likelihood they will commit a violent act later in life.

“When children are asked about the causes of youth violence, they cite violence in the home and bullying at school as the number one and number two causes,” stated a 2008 Minneapolis report on youth violence.

Homicide was the leading cause of death for African Americans ages 15-24 in Hennepin County from 2004-2014, accounting for nearly half of deaths, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Many in North Minneapolis are living with grief and trauma, Smith said.

“They’re so scared,” he said. “They’re seeing so much violence and homicide and killing. They’re living in danger constantly.”

On a frigid February night, Smith loaded boxes of stuffed animals into a converted ambulance that serves as the MAD DADS van. He gave the animals to kids at the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center, parents at a bus stop near Lake & Chicago, and staff at a McDonald’s near Dupont & Broadway. The group recruited volunteers and tried to connect families to whatever they might need, whether it be schooling, job help or parenting classes.

“We’re trying to go to the hardest neighborhoods we can find,” said Joann Wade of MAD DADS. (Wade gave up Timberwolves tickets to volunteer that night.) “When you have more options, it’s easier to stay out of trouble.”

Smith also stopped at a convenience store at Penn & Glenwood, because he said a woman was recently shot nearby while walking her dog.

“I want to see if I can find that lady,” he said.

Smith tries to meet with every Northside family hit with a violent death in the family.

“First you see how they’re doing and what their needs are,” he said. “Mostly they need prayer and they need comfort.”

MAD DADS is working to fundraise and reach 500 new families.

“We need everybody out here, there’s a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “People want to do something, they want to help. We’ve just got to show them how. They want to believe there is hope.”


Risk factors linked to the likelihood of youth violence

— Prior victim or witness of violence; suicide attempt by friend or family member

— High levels of emotional distress

— Learning problems, repeated grade, skipped school

— Alcohol and marijuana use

— Easy access to firearms

— Perceived prejudice among fellow students

— An incarcerated parent

Youth are less likely to be involved in violence when they have

— A sense of spirituality

— A positive sense of the future

— A strong connection to parents and school, a place to discuss problems

— A higher grade point average

— Parents who set high expectations

— A feeling of safety in the neighborhood

Source: 2008 Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis