The challenges of planning a holiday party for dozens of rival gang members are not lost on Sasha Cotton.

For one thing, location matters.

Picking a spot too far north of W. Broadway plays into the territorialism and animosities of north Minneapolis’ gang war, with members of crews like the Skitz Squad or Stick Up Boys wary of venturing into enemy territory unarmed. Too far south, and you risk alienating the Tre Tre Crips and their allies.

Last year, the party was held at a community center on Broadway — considered neutral territory in the conflict between the High End and Low End gang alliances — so as not to create a hostile environment. But with a recent spike in bloodshed following the brazen daylight slaying of Nathan Hampton, Cotton has spent the past few months scouting new locations.

Such is the reality of running Project LIFE, a two-year-old experiment in crime prevention, which enlists police, ex-cons and relatives of shooting victims to connect with those who are at the greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence.

Supporters say that the program is already having a positive impact.

For Cotton, the city of Minneapolis’ youth violence prevention coordinator, the hardest challenge is convincing young people from crime-plagued neighborhoods that they have something to live for — and, in the process, get them to put down their guns.

Part of the problem, she says, is that the message can get lost in the hopelessness of the street life. And so she decided to host a holiday party every year, complete with presents and a tree, for the group’s participants: as a reward for good behavior, but also to serve as a symbolic reminder that their lives matter.

Project LIFE, short for “Lifestyle in Transition for Empowerment,” is formerly known as group violence intervention and is run through the city’s Health Department. It began two years ago after Minneapolis officials reached out to researchers at John Jay University in New York City in their search for solutions to the city’s gun violence problem. Its 112 participants are considered to be at risk of violence, based on their criminal histories, social networks and prior exposure to violence. By focusing resources on the relatively small number of perpetrators, officials hope to ease the spiking gun violence in a city where seven out of every 10 shooting victims were black.

In Minneapolis’ most crime-ridden neighborhoods, between 10 and 20 percent of men are gang members or are suspected of gang activity, Cotton said. But, of that number, only .5 percent are seen as chronically violent offenders, or “impact players,” she said. Still, police believe that in any given year they account for 60 to 75 percent of the city’s homicides and about 60 percent of all nonfatal shootings.

The program’s early results have been promising.

North Side gang-related shootings have decreased significantly, with 25 documented gang members shot during the observation period, May 1 through Sept. 24, compared with 42 during the same span last year. Gang shootings also dropped by more than half after the first year of the program, according to police statistics. And of its 100-plus participants, only seven have been charged with a new gun crime since enrolling in the program, Cotton says.

Every few months, participants are brought in for a “call-in,” with police, prosecutors, judges, former gang members, mothers of shooting victims and others with firsthand experience with the city’s gun violence problem, and presented with an ultimatum: Clean up your act or face the full might of the criminal justice system, with authorities promising that constant surveillance and heavier prison sentences await those who commit further acts of violence.

Those who agree to get out of the street life are connected with education, mental health services, job training, and help obtaining benefits and housing — a major hurdle for people released from prison and struggling to reintegrate into society.

An effective strategy

At the most recent gathering earlier this fall, attendees heard from Mayor Jacob Frey and the city’s chief of police, Medaria Arradondo, who told the men that they wanted to keep them safe and alive.

Ferome Brown, a former gang leader turned anti-violence activist, talked about Shane “Webbie” Webb, a charismatic gang member, who was in the program when he was gunned down last summer at an after-hours parking lot gathering. Webb, 25, was being kept in a safe house for his protection, but he managed to sneak out that night to attend the party. Hours later, he lay dead. At the meeting, Brown likened Webb’s murder to losing one of his own children.

But the speaker who most resonated most powerfully with the men was Sa’Lesha Beeks, who shared with them the emotional toll from the death two years ago of her mother, Birdell Beeks, who was struck and killed on the North Side by an errant bullet. Her death so shocked the community that a gang truce was called.

Criminologist David Kennedy, on whose Operation Ceasefire strategy the program is modeled, said that past zero-tolerance strategies were ineffective, in part because they reflected a limited understanding of how crime develops in urban areas.

“Even among the high-risk folks, almost none of them are what people thought they were. Almost overwhelmingly they’re traumatized, they’ve got dead friends and families, they’ve been hurt themselves,” said Kennedy, now a professor at John Jay’s College of Criminal Justice. “They’re not crazy, they’re not irrational, they’re not super-predators.”

He pointed out that the GVI approach has been credited with helping drive down the number of shootings and homicides in places like Oakland, Calif. In Pittsburgh, officials credited GVI with helping reduce the city’s shootings to a 12-year low in 2017.

At Minneapolis City Hall, officials have started to take notice. Mayor Jacob Frey pledged $370,000 in his 2019 budget proposal for the program, which the city plans to expand to the Little Earth area in the next few years. And the program’s organizers recently received another $232,000 federal grant.

Mike Martin, a former Minneapolis deputy chief and leading gang expert, said he thought the approach could be effective when combined with other proactive policing strategies.

“The whole point of it is kind of having a hammer hanging over their heads at the same time that you’re trying to work with them to take a better path,” Martin said, while pointing to a dearth of reliable research on gun violence prevention.

Where previous efforts to implement Ceasefire have failed, including in Minneapolis in the late 1990s, officials were too quick to abandon the approach after crime rates began to fall, according to Hamline University law Prof. Joseph Olson.

“They did the police part very well; they didn’t do the social services part well at all,” said Olson. “As soon as the numbers go down, everything shuts down and everybody goes home.”

Locally, some at police headquarters and City Hall have been reluctant to back programs run by former offenders, a wariness that dates back to the 1992 murder of policeman Jerry Haaf by several Vice Lord gang members. Cotton is also aware that similar programs have been labeled as allowing dangerous criminals a free pass, without having to answer for past crimes.

But, she argues, the approach is a recognition of offenders’ humanity, not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“If somebody is trying to kill you and you want out, this is your 911,” Cotton said at a recent public hearing. “And that hasn’t always existed.”