Minneapolis is a template for fight on youth crime

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2007 - 7:35 PM

Law enforcement leaders at a recent national summit found answers in the city's approach: Treating the persistent violence as a public health issue.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL. - An innovative and promising effort to attack the roots of juvenile crime in Minneapolis is commanding the attention of police officials across the country.

The holistic approach that views violence among kids as a public health issue as well as a police problem has reduced juvenile crime in Minneapolis by 20 percent from last year, and the approach was highlighted at a recent conference on violence held in Schaumburg, Ill.

The arrest of two teenage gang members in the shooting of a 12-year-old girl last week makes clear that challenges remain. But police in cities where violent crime is escalating hope the Minneapolis lessons can help reduce the carnage -- especially among children.

"The face of violence is young, both victims and suspects," said Providence, R.I., Police Chief Dean Esserman.

Last year, when juvenile crime was responsible for 50 percent of Minneapolis' violent crime, Police Chief Tim Dolan reestablished the juvenile unit, including a team that works with U.S. marshals to track down juveniles with outstanding warrants. A new violent offender task force also dismantled several large gangs.

But the effort went beyond traditional law enforcement. Grants were issued to community organizations to "reach out further" to disconnected youth.

The city also is working with hospitals to identify at-risk juveniles by getting data on Minneapolis teens admitted because of an assault. Juveniles brought to the new truancy and curfew center at City Hall are connected with resources that help them stay out of trouble.

A 30-member youth violence steering committee has also been working for months on a "blueprint" for prevention and intervention programs that will be made public next month, said Gretchen Musicant, Minneapolis' health commissioner.

A grim roundup

Those efforts -- and results -- were part of the presentation Dolan and Mayor R.T. Rybak made Wednesday in Schaumburg at the National Summit on Violent Crime in America.

The second annual summit is the continuation of an effort that came together when Dolan, Rybak and Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, were walking the streets of north Minneapolis last year. They wanted to know whether Minneapolis' juvenile crime wave was unique to the city.

The answer was a resounding "no," and what they learned from other local leaders helped frame the Minneapolis response.

This year's summit identified a number of factors contributing to violent crime in 2007: the proliferation of guns on the street, the willingness of people to shoot at cops, and the growing number of illegal immigrants committing serious crime.

The FBI projects that violent crime in the United States is expected to rise slightly for the second consecutive year, but nearly half of the 163 law enforcement agencies that responded to a Research Forum survey presented at the conference indicated decreases through June. Gangs, impulsive youth violence and poor parenting ranked as the top contributors to crime, but each agency listed unique trends and circumstances in their area. Together, they painted a grim portrait, but also offered glimmers of hope.

In Phoenix, two police officers were shot in the face and killed this summer during what were considered routine arrests. With more than 530 homicides this year, the toll in Philadelphia and Baltimore this year will most likely surpass Canada's total from 2006.

In Miami, AK-47 assault rifles have been used in more than 20 percent of the city's homicides this year, including execution-style killings.

Twenty-three Florida agencies reported significant increases in robberies fueled by illegal immigrants, although many Midwest cities, including Minneapolis, are experiencing declines. Miami Police Chief John Timoney said more people are getting shot to death during robberies when they don't turn over the goods.

In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said while shootings are down, he is amazed that 44 percent of this year's homicides grew out of arguments. High unemployment and high school dropout rates among minorities cause "frustration that leads to aggression, and we have a lot of aggression in Philadelphia," he said.

"There is a community psychosis," said Ed Flynn, commissioner of the Springfield, Mass., Police Department. "Violence is the first reaction, and guns are available."

Going after guns

Minneapolis has pulled 600 guns off the street this year, while Chicago recovered 10,000 last year and offers $100 for anyone who turns one in. Mark Chait, deputy assistant director in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the agency traced more than 300,000 guns recovered by police last year.

Gang violence accounts for 75 percent of the shootings in Boston in 2007. Karyn McCluskey, deputy head of the Strathclyde Police Department in Glasgow, Scotland, was a bit stunned by the level of gun activity in the United States. Nearly all of the 167 homicides in Scotland last year involved knives, she said.

Many officials, including Dolan, were candid in their remarks, contending that soft sentences for gun crimes create a cycle of repeat offenders. More than 50 people charged with murder in Baltimore this year had prior gun convictions, so "we're not talking about amateurs here," said Frederick Bealefeld, the city's acting police commissioner.

The Tennessee Legislature recently passed the "Crooks with Guns" bill that requires mandatory additional sentences of between three and 10 years for crimes committed with guns. In Canada, handguns are essentially banned unless you're in law enforcement, said Toronto's Police Chief William Blair.

The number of criminals willing to fire guns at officers and deputies has reached record levels in the United States. This year, 58 officers have been shot to death, surpassing the 52 slain in 2006.

"People will do anything to evade arrest," said Kansas City, Mo., Police Chief Jim Corwin, who recently had an officer paralyzed by gunfire. "In 30 years, I've never seen anything like it."

Sharing success stories

Many of those shooters are juveniles, which is why police officials from Milwaukee, San Francisco and elsewhere wanted to hear how Minneapolis is reducing youth crime.

In addition to sharing their successes, Dolan and Rybak liked several ideas they heard at the conference. One in particular is used in New Haven, Conn., where officials issue identification cards to any undocumented illegal immigrants to help police. It would also encourage immigrants to open a bank account instead of carrying cash after cashing a payroll check.

Dolan, among others, was also interested in a program that Boston set up in June that allows anonymous text messaging of crime tips. Boston police have received 399 tips, several of which helped solve two homicides.

Although there was no shortage of success stories, old problems remain and new challenges continue to appear on the horizon.

Half of the officials, for instance, agreed they are trying to slow down the number of robbers seeking iPods, cell phones and other electronic gadgets instead of cash.

"We can talk about all the strategies all we want," said Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger. "But crime usually happens when the community fails to police itself."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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