When representatives from a Chicago nonprofit came to the Twin Cities recently to discuss how they might help Minneapolis reduce the number of murders, the group was met with both hope and suspicion. Some longtime activists criticized the city for pursuing federal grants that would replicate the Chicago program CeaseFire, arguing many agencies and individuals already do that work and could use the money instead.

One of CeaseFire's strategies is to use violence "interrupters," paid former gang members who keep an eye on the mean streets and intervene when it gets tense between rival gangs, or after a shooting.

To some in government and law enforcement, that plan sounded familiar.

In the early 1990s, a group called United for Peace emerged from the North Side in an effort to stem a rash of shootings and revenge killings. The group was initially lauded by the police chief.

Then four gang thugs assassinated Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf at a pizza parlor. Cops said the killers were associates of those running UFP, and they believed UFP leader Sharif Willis may have been involved. A former gang leader, Willis was later convicted of drug and weapons charges and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

The group dissolved, the murders continued.

"When I read about CeaseFire I had to chuckle," said retired homicide cop Jim DeConcini. "It seems like every decade they take an old idea and wrap it differently to get grant money. It's a nice concept to get somebody who can reach these kids and talk the language," but the results are mixed at best, he said.

"United for Peace was a sham," said William Finney, former St. Paul Police Chief. "The purpose was to get the gangs to divide up the drug territory under the guise of not hurting each other, and they wanted police to cooperate."

At the time, Finney warned of giving recent gang members money to keep the peace: "I believe they want higher exposure so they can parlay this into a legitimate group in order to receive governmental assistance while at the same time they are doing criminal activity," he said in 1993. "It's been done before."

So, does CeaseFire pass his smell test?

"I don't know a lot about them," Finney said. "But I would look at anything like this with a raised eyebrow. On the surface it sounds like a good thing. Any help you can get to stem the violence right now is positive. I would say the police chief and those involved have to do a lot of due diligence so they don't fall for another scam."

John Laux, Minneapolis police chief at the time UFP emerged, agrees. "The rhetoric is the same, some of the people are the same. Did [UFP] divert some kids from gangs? Probably," Laux said. "But kids are still dying."

"With United for Peace there was no accountability," Laux said. "It was 'give me the money and we'll take care of it.'"

Dr. Gary Slutkin, executive director of CeaseFire, said his group is often mistaken with "a whole history of lack of success from outreach programs." CeaseFire is funded by the Department of Justice, and uses a "scientific and systematic approach" to stopping violence. "We have a good reputation with law enforcement."

When CeaseFire uses former gang members, "they have already disavowed violence and are already involved in trying to turn the situation around," Slutkin said.

Steve Cramer, who was running for mayor when United for Peace was promising to help authorities, was deeply critical of them. Cramer sees the CeaseFire initiative differently.

"I guess part of [CeaseFire] sounds familiar, but a lot of time has passed and the people are very different," said Cramer, who said he distrusted Willis and his cohorts from the start.

"It wasn't that the concept was bad, it was the people who were running it," he said. "What I understand of CeaseFire is that they are unequivocally dismissive of gang culture. If a person is certain and unequivocal in their rejection of gangs, having them work with young people so they don't walk down that path can be valuable."

Unlike UFP, CeaseFire is a registered nonprofit and housed at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If the city gets a grant to implement CeaseFire, it would employ locals to work the streets. "We are not competition for existing agencies," Slutkin said.

I asked Laux, the former Minneapolis police chief, if he thought a program like CeaseFire could work.

"It could, but I have just never seen it sustain," he said. "I have seen three generations of gang members, the same family names coming up over and over. They grow up in this mayhem and they don't know anything else. In this journey to break people from gang life, I don't think you can measure success of a project in one or two years. I think it has to be a generation."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702