Facing twin demands to curb police brutality and turn back a surge in violent crime, Minneapolis leaders have tripled the budget of a low profile city agency that treats violence as a public health crisis.

Now the Office of Violence Prevention faces its largest test since its founding in 2018. Its success will depend partly on its ability to work with the Minneapolis Police Department, whose budget was trimmed so more money could be spent on unarmed city workers who intervene in conflicts and help crime victims.

"Law enforcement plays a critical role," said Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who supported efforts to move some police funding to violence prevention programs. "The Office of Violence Prevention is inherently collaborative. The public health approach is collaborative."

Over six months, Minneapolis' elected leaders boosted funding for the Office of Violence Prevention from $2.5 million to $7.4 million.

The latest increase, for the 2021 budget, drew the attention of residents, who flooded elected leaders with conflicting perspectives about the future of the city's Police Department and public safety efforts. While most people said they supported violence prevention programming, some questioned the wisdom of reducing the Police Department's funding to do so.

"I am baffled at the thought of further restricting resources from MPD, and then on top of it thinking that overtime can be reined in," Kali Pliego, a Minneapolis resident and city crime prevention specialist, wrote in one of hundreds of messages submitted during the public comment period. "The required staffing numbers don't change, and in my opinion should be expanded upon so that the department can play a role in prevention."

About $3.4 million of the new money for the Office of Violence Prevention came from funds previously earmarked for police. Between resignations, retirements and PTSD claims, the department is effectively down more than 100 officers, and Chief Medaria Arradondo has reorganized officers to focus on responding to 911 calls and investigating violent crimes.

Still, the Police Department's budget of $164 million dwarfs that of the Office of Violence Prevention. An additional $11.4 million for police sits in a reserve fund that could be released with City Council's approval.

During budget talks, Cunningham and others raised concerns about whether police were cooperating enough with people running violence prevention programs. Some of the office's staff provide social services to gunshot victims in the hospital, while others try to identify people involved in conflicts and find solutions before they escalate into violence.

"What's really critical is the intelligence that is gathered by the … violent crimes unit," Cunningham said. "That intelligence is very critical for the Office of Violence Prevention to be able to identify who folks are who need to be brought into these strategies."

Often, these programs give people the option to "either put guns down" and accept help or "continue down the path that you're going, and we'll put every resource behind it to hold you accountable and lock you up," he said.

They need help from police to follow through on that enforcement piece, when necessary, Cunningham said.

In public meetings, Arradondo has repeatedly sought to reassure the city's elected leaders that he is willing to work with the Office of Violence Prevention.

Council Member Linea Palmisano tried unsuccessfully to persuade her colleagues to use different pools of city money to fund the violence prevention programs.

"I've found the Police Department very willing to work with violence prevention initiatives," she said, adding that they have "a lot that they already do themselves that doesn't get talked about, because it's not something that my colleagues went and created. But, it's really important that it all works together."

As they navigate that relationship, Office of Violence Prevention Director Sasha Cotton is also facing another challenge: expanding programs at rapid speed while violence is on the rise and disproportionately targeting Black men. The city recorded 551 shooting victims last year, up from 269 in 2019. Robberies and carjackings also increased substantially.

In the past, when they were creating new violence prevention programs, city workers often had months to work out the details. It took more than six months to launch the city's group violence intervention initiative after it was first funded in October 2016.

Though Cotton said they initially planned to launch the new MinneapolUS teams early this year, they ended up starting the program in September, amid concerns about violent crime.

Team members walked city streets in hopes of connecting people with services and mediating conflicts before they escalated into violence.

The city has periodically taken the teams off the streets. Some people felt they needed additional training, though Cotton attributed the interruption primarily to the winter weather.

In the coming months, Cotton and other health officials will meet with representatives from national organizations Cities United and Cure Violence to fine-tune details of the larger rollout. The city, pending approval from council and the mayor, also expects to seek proposals from organizations that could help expand the teams, starting in the late spring or early summer.

Cotton hopes people will be patient and that city leaders will continue to support her office. She cautions against rushing out the new programs for those seeking a "quick solution."

She noted that in the late 1990s — the last time the city experienced similar levels of violent crime — Minneapolis used a group violence intervention model, and violent crime fell over the course of one summer. "Then, city officials and others felt like, 'Oh, we've got the magic bullet, we don't need anything else, and we've solved that problem.' "

She added: "That is a real fear, especially because we don't have a large budget, and we know that this only works as long as there are people who do the work."

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994