Minneapolis' crime prevention department is facing scrutiny from City Council members and violence-prevention groups who say limited oversight and unpaid contracts suggest the city isn't committed to the work.

Of particular concern: Several organizations under contract with the city to provide street-level outreach have reported not being paid for months, forcing them to halt their violence-prevention efforts. Others say communication from the city's department of Neighborhood Safety has been erratic, at best. Meanwhile, the city is facing a lawsuit alleging that officials illegally and arbitrarily handed out millions of dollars in violence-prevention contracts.

"Our vendors are frustrated. It feels like community is seeing the services even less than a couple of years ago, and we're all just sort of left to figure out why," said Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.

Over the past several years, Minneapolis has built a network of unarmed "violence interrupters": community-grown outreach workers who use street savvy to defuse conflicts before they turn deadly, and to mentor teens. The Group Violence Intervention (GVI) model, which relies on decades of data showing a small number of individuals are connected to most shootings in American cities, has been credited with driving down murders in Oakland, Calif., and Pittsburgh.

For a while, the effort was growing. But earlier this year, several groups reported that they hadn't been paid and they'd stopped getting client referrals from law enforcement and probation agencies. City officials blame a staffing shortage and say they are working to add safeguards and structure to the effort.

Groups like Muhammad Abdul-Ahad's T.O.U.C.H Outreach were forced to halt school mentorship programs and broader violence prevention efforts in south Minneapolis once their contract expired and funding ran dry, leaving community members asking where they'd gone and if they were coming back.

"You can't leave vendors like us, that's been doing this work for the past four years, in a bind like that," said Abdul-Ahad, who lamented that the gap in services undercut hard-won trust. "That's just not acceptable. We'd never had these issues in the past."

Meanwhile, the city's technical assistance contract with the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, expired in March 2023. That meant for more than a year, Minneapolis' violence interrupters were without updated data analysis to help identify the groups in the city most likely to commit — or become victims of — violence.

In response to complaints that violence interrupters were no longer operating as they had in the past, Council Members Robin Wonsley and Jason Chavez asked the city staff in charge of the contracts to explain what had happened.

Neighborhood Safety Director Luana Nelson-Brown responded in an email that her department was "severely understaffed and under resourced." A series of staff resignations had left just two employees to handle over 100 complex contracts. She had just been hired last July, and the support and guidance promised to her for running a department that issued more than $18 million in contracts last year "disappeared" within days of her arrival, Nelson-Brown said.

No one to count the money

Neighborhood Safety is a department of the Office of Community Safety, created by Mayor Jacob Frey in 2022 following a ballot initiative that shifted Minneapolis to a "strong mayor" system of government.

While voters rejected a high-profile effort to remove the Police Department from the city charter, many continued to call for change following the murder of George Floyd and exodus of police officers. Frey's new Office of Community Safety was offered up as a path forward for residents looking to see Minneapolis embrace a more comprehensive model of public safety.

The Office of Community Safety took the Office of Violence Prevention out of the Health Department where it had been originally housed, renamed it Neighborhood Safety and combined it with police, fire, 911 and emergency management, but the transition was rocky. The office's first commissioner, Cedric Alexander, resigned after just one year following criticism of being frequently absent and disinterested in the job. Former Hennepin County Chief Judge Todd Barnette was appointed to replace him in September 2023.

Summoned to answer questions from the City Council last month, Barnette said moving the department to the Office of Community Safety resulted in the loss of staff who helped manage millions of dollars in contracts with violence interrupters. He compared it to a "startup company with big ideas, big goals but no real structure."

"Our biggest challenge for Neighborhood Safety is putting in controls in place, where there's better oversight and accountability," he said.

Wonsley said council members are looking into the concerns, that includes actions during city budgeting last November when City Council attempted to amend the mayor's 2024 budget to transfer staff from Human Resources to Neighborhood Safety.

Office of Community Safety Chief of Staff Jared Jeffries asked Barnette and Nelson-Brown to sign off on a memo rejecting the offer, writing, "This would be adding positions into [the Neighborhood Safety Department] that are not being asked for, at this time, from the Community Safety Commissioner and Director of NSD."

Nelson-Brown rejected that characterization, writing in an email that failing to add staff would be problematic for a number of reasons, including the pending lawsuit and the fact that "we are worth over $17 million dollars and don't have a single staff to count that money."

Still, the memo was issued over Nelson-Brown's objections. She did not respond to an interview request from the Star Tribune, but Barnette said it had always been his intention to take more time to assess Neighborhood Safety's capacity before going back to the mayor with a complete plan for new positions.

"Here's what we're trying to do. We're right now building the sustainability of all the work that happens in Neighborhood Safety, the accountability and compliance, capacity, outcomes, all that's happening," Barnette said.

"We're working very hard to make sure we're doing the right things for our citizens."

Barnette promised Minneapolis would officially resume its Group Violence Intervention work by mid-September.

They're "really resetting the program," he said, "trying to get Minneapolis back in the place where again we're a national model."

Resetting Neighborhood Safety

On May 8, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger joined Barnette, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, local law enforcement leaders and city staff for the first GVI executive committee meeting in nearly a year. Frey opened by acknowledging that the once lauded initiative was not functioning as intended nor delivering adequate results, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting. He told Barnette to get things moving again.

The following day, the Office of Community Safety submitted a series of GVI contracts backdated to last December. Four groups — Cause and Effect, T.O.U.C.H Outreach, Urban Youth Conservation and W Berry Consulting — were approved for $150,000 each.

The John Jay contract was re-issued, more than a year after lapsing. Council members also approved three more administrative positions for Neighborhood Safety.

On the North Side, red-shirted We Push for Peace crew members are now back on the W. Broadway corridor following a four-month hiatus, patrolling troubled intersections, looking to intervene in street feuds before they spark gunfire.

Their presence has been a welcome sight for residents and business owners, who rely upon interrupters to help keep the peace, said Trahern Pollard, the group's founder and CEO.

"Our city depends on us being out there," he said.