With 29 homicides this year, Minneapolis vows to get tough on illegal possession of firearms.
Standing before "Phoenix Rising," a statue made from hundreds of melted-down guns, law-enforcement leaders set out an initiative to battle the violence that has taken 29 lives in Minneapolis this year -- far eclipsing the total for all of 2009.
The plan: to prosecute more cases of illegal gun possession in federal court, where sentences often are longer and often without parole.
The message: Commit a serious or repeat gun crime in Minneapolis, and you will face serious prison time.
Thursday's news conference was more than just a policy discussion. As officials laid out Project Minneapolis Exile, mothers of slain young men held each other, sobbing. They were dressed in red, to signify the blood that has been shed and that binds them together.
"We're not in full-on crisis mode, but we're heading in the wrong direction," said Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. "Let's change that direction."
Project Exile, a program that has been successful elsewhere, will focus on convicted felons in possession of firearms, who officials say are responsible for the dramatic uptick in homicides. The city had 19 killings in 2009, a 27-year low. With more vigorous prosecution, the officials argue, gun offenders not only will be put away longer, but they'll think twice before arming themselves on the streets.
"We're going to be smart about who we're bringing into the federal system. It's not going to be willy-nilly scooping up any youngster who's making a mistake," said U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. "But we all know there's some hard-core folks out there that really, quite frankly, don't care about public safety in our community. And they are the folks, the worst of the worst, the people who know and don't care."
Jones and Dolan were joined by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Bernard Zapor, of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), signifying the relationship among the four entities that will focus on gun crimes in Minneapolis.
Listening to the community
"What would you do if it was your child?" implored Bishop Richard Howell of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis, which recently held the funeral of 16-year-old Anthony Titus, who was shot and killed July 4.
"This week, I had an eye-opening epiphany," said Howell, one of several community and spiritual leaders at the news conference. "I just shut up and let the community speak."
Members voiced frustration, he said, about how programs to stem violence already exist, and how the wheel doesn't need to be reinvented. It's a matter of buckling down and working together with other community organizations.
Howell found it difficult to control his emotions while listening to Mary Johnson, of the group From Death to Life, which represents the mothers of children lost to gun violence or of children who have shot and killed others.
"We're not going to climb Mount Everest today," Howell said. "The majority of the community wants to take our city back."
In addition to the 29 homicides since Jan. 1, police have responded to 99 calls of shootings or shootings in progress, some of which turned out to be false calls. It's difficult to track the exact number of shootings, because they fall under the category of assault, which include other methods of injury, said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer. Assaults causing great bodily harm, significant bodily harm and assault with a deadly weapon totaled 1,156 so far this year, Palmer said; he cautioned that guns were not used in many of the cases.
Review every case
Project Exile, which began in Richmond, Va., in 1997 and almost immediately resulted in a startling drop in crime, is also in effect in Baltimore and other places. A similar program called FACE 5 is in place in Atlanta; it stands for Firearms in Atlanta Can Equal 5 years in prison.
Jones said his prosecutors will begin by meeting weekly with staff from Freeman's office to review every gun case in Minneapolis to determine which should be brought to federal court. They'll look at the most serious and dangerous offenders, and at which statutes are likely to result in the most effective consequences. Under some federal statutes, certain offenders can face mandatory minimum sentences of up to 15 years. Others average from two to five years.
Zapor, of ATF, had a message for "straw buyers," or those who buy guns legally only for them to land in the wrong hands. "You can expect a visit from us," he said.
Police Chief Dolan said the aim of Project Exile is to regain some of the success from the late 1990s, when rigorous arrests and prosecution staved off the number of guns on the street in Minneapolis.
"We want to get that back," he said. "We're giving fair warning that we're going to take a hard look at every one of your cases."
Dolan said the increase in homicides this year has resulted from myriad circumstances. He estimates that gang issues have been related to "about a half-dozen" of the 29 killings. Narcotics are another factor, he said. "It's more about economics on the street and the willingness to use a gun and carry a gun," he said.
He estimated that Minneapolis police seize between 1,000 and 1,500 guns from the streets annually. Seizures are up 32 percent from this time last year. Overall, violent crime is up 3 percent compared with this time in 2010 and is down 14 percent from the same period two years ago. Freeman estimated that the county attorney's office dealt with 150 gun-related cases. Jones said the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis is currently dealing with 44.
Project Exile isn't alone among initiatives to combat violence in the city. Last year, the FBI-led Twin Cities Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force was launched to combat gangs, drugs and illegal guns. Additionally, both Minneapolis and Hennepin County have violent offender task forces. Jones said Exile is different because it is more "prosecutorial-driven rather than cop-driven" and is streamlined to focus on guns. It's not a knee-jerk reaction to the city's homicides, but a reassessment of priorities in light of what's happening.
"Right now, given the spike, the priority is going to be gun suppression and gun trafficking programs," Jones said.
Kim Griffin of Brooklyn Park listened patiently at the news conference, hugging fellow bereaved mothers and crying occasionally. Afterward, she clutched a photo of her son, Christopher Dozier, 23, who was shot and killed inside a vehicle in Minneapolis last August.
She doesn't know whether the latest initiative against gun crime is going to work. It's one thing to talk tough, she said.
"Whether the young people will pay attention and heed to it is another story," she said, adding that prosecutors will likely have to "put their money where their mouth is" and make an example of a felon caught with a gun by handing down a stiff prison sentence.
Whatever works, she said, as long as it prevents another young life, like her son's, from being snuffed out from senseless violence.
"His life was my life, and I lost him to nonsense and stupidity," she said. "The pain, as lives continue to be taken, is like living his death over and over again."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921