DeVon Nolen looked up from her work Monday night to count the number of gunshots outside her bedroom window — five, maybe six, all coming from the direction of Newton Avenue N.
She leapt out of bed to check on her 17-year-old niece and 8-year-old daughter, who had been awakened by the gunfire, Nolen later recalled, even though the sound of gunfire was nothing new to her. It’s an all-too-familiar soundtrack for this time of the night, in this part of Minneapolis.
”And if it’s not gunshots, it’s sirens,” Nolen said.
A few hours later, a 23-year-old man stumbled into Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, telling staff he’d been shot earlier that night near Newton Avenue N.
The late-night shooting last week in north Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood, as recounted by Nolen and in a police report, underscores the renewed violence that is surging across the city and has left police puzzling over how best to tackle the problem.
As of April 11, 74 people had been shot in the city, an 85 percent increase over the 40 shot during the same period last year. Eleven neighborhoods spanning the city saw violent crimes such as rape, robbery or arson showing increases in 2015 compared to a five-year average.
Criminologists caution against reading too much into early month crime statistics, and police say that in some respects, not much is different about this current surge in gun violence. Most shootings are clustered around fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, along busy transit corridors and anywhere where open-air drug dealing thrives. Although the uptick in violence has affected some neighborhoods in the city’s south and northeast sections that are rarely visited by crime, areas that have been persistent pockets of crime continue to see most of the shootings.
Sasha Cotton, youth violence prevention coordinator for the city, said that Minneapolis, like other large U.S. cities, is starting to address violent crime as a public health crisis, focusing on the “long-term systemic problems” that cause crime rather than the “symptoms” of it.
“We have to unravel why kids are not plugged into the community, plugged into the schools,” Cotton said.
Minneapolis police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Gangs still a problem
The past two weeks alone claimed multiple young shooting victims across Minneapolis, some of which appear to be gang-related incidents. A 19-year-old man was caught in crossfire between rival crews and shot in the foot April 8. Three days later, a young woman was shot after someone fired at the vehicle she was sitting in. She was hospitalized in critical condition but expected to survive. Another man was struck in the thigh in the parking lot of the Hennepin County North Regional Library after witnesses say he ventured into enemy gang territory. The shooting resulted in an arrest after a witness identified the alleged shooter as a member of the Tre Tre gang.
Since the beginning of the year, at least 55 people have been shot in north Minneapolis compared with 21 in that same period last year, according to department figures. Last fall, police launched the Violent Crime Investigations Team to speed up prosecutions of violent offenders. The department also has several investigators who specifically focus on gun crimes.
Authorities have rounded up dozens of gang members in the past few years, part of a broad federal-state effort to cripple the two largest gang factions in north Minneapolis — Young N’ Thuggin’ (YNT) and Taliban and their rivals, the 1-9 Dipset and Stick Up Boys gangs — by targeting their leaders. Federal agencies have also taken aim at other crews such as the 10z and the Black Disciples.
But that violence isn’t limited to North Side gangs. Neighborhoods scattered across downtown and south Minneapolis saw increases in crime, particularly along the Hiawatha corridor.
Jibril Afyare says that residents of south Minneapolis’ Somali community are stepping up to do more to keep the streets safe. One of the initiatives that has sprung up in recent months, dubbed the Somali American Citizens League, has long had patrols to escort female employees to their cars at night. He said the community has had a big challenge with neighborhood youth joining street gangs, but that community leaders have started working closely with police to curb the problem.
Special agent Martin Siebenaler, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ St. Paul office, said the proliferation of guns on the streets, which often end up in the hands of repeat violent offenders, is also part of the problem. In an effort to stem the flow of guns into the city, Siebenaler says, his agency and others have aggressively gone after straw buyers, who buy guns at the behest of criminals.
“We’re kind of a state where firearms and hunting is part of our culture,” Siebenaler said. “Guns are just unique: They can be lawfully owned items and an hour later they can illegal.”
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, blames the crime surge on a shrinking police force and greater scrutiny of police that has left some officers disengaged. The slowdown in policing has been noticeable.
Through April 11, police in north Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct made 3,706 proactive stops, compared with 7,732 in the same period last year. Citywide, there has also been a dramatic decline in traffic stops and arrests for serious crimes.
Police say they are trying to get more their officers to get out of their cars as often as possible and walk their beats, and also reviving the so-called JET patrols, a three-year-old partnership with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, the State Patrol and Metro Transit police, that revolves around the idea of saturating high-crime hot spots with officers during the summer months, when crime tends to rise. The department has also proposed assigning more cops to parts of downtown, “where crime mapping and safety perception has indicated a need for extra police presence.”
Neighbors in some of the hardest-hit communities scoff at official assurances that the city is still as safe as it’s ever been, with violent crime hovering near historic lows.
Nolen said that while the shooting outside her house left her angry and jittery, she is hopeful that things will get better.
Crime prevention, she contends, sometimes comes from outside-the-box thinking. For example, community organizers and police found that crime dropped significantly within a one-block radius of a Friday evening farmers market at the corner of Broadway and DuPont avenues N. Pop-up parks around the community have had a similar deterrent effect.
“It’s really about the creation of public spaces and giving people an alternative to violence,” she said.