Six nights a week, groups of workers in bright orange shirts marked “Outreach” walk Minneapolis streets, hoping they can connect people with assistance and prevent violence before it occurs.
If they encounter men shooting dice at a gas station, they’ll start up a conversation. If they run into a teenager who needs a job, they’ll exchange phone numbers and put them in touch with someone who’s hiring.
If the person needs help with housing, they’ll try to cut through the bureaucracy and get help fast.
“We just try to reach out,” said Kani Jackson, a member of the new MinneapolUS Strategic Outreach Initiative teams. “[We] try to get a feel for them, get a vibe for them, and then put them where they need to go, not where we want them to go, but where they want to go.”
The city of Minneapolis created the teams this fall, as it seeks to reimagine public safety following George Floyd’s death, a fresh awakening on racism and a surge in violent crime.
City leaders who have been pushing for less policing and more social work hope the new teams could fit into a new public safety system moving forward.
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, noting that violence often occurs in cycles, compared it to an infectious disease that can be prevented and cured.
“What we are facing here in Minneapolis is something that we can get to the root of, but it will take absolutely all of us,” Cunningham said.
To fund the program, the city’s elected leaders moved $1.1 million from the Police Department’s budget to the Office of Violence Prevention this summer.
Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention, said the city has four teams operating — two on the North Side and two on the South Side. Each one has about 15 to 20 paid members, many of whom were already doing outreach work before joining the city effort.
“That was a critical component,” Cotton said. “They bring skills to the table, intellectual property that we could not find anywhere else, so they are absolutely compensated for their work.”
The first team began its work in September, and the last one launched a little more than a week ago. Cotton said the city plans to meet with national experts later this year to develop metrics for gauging the program’s success, but she expects they’ll look at whether more people are getting access to social services, and whether violent crime decreases.
The team members say they hope their life experiences will allow them to connect with people and turn them away from violence by helping them get jobs or other help.
Jackson said he was born and raised on the North Side and has multiple felony convictions, for crimes involving marijuana. “I have a background in bringing drugs back to the community and selling them,” he said. “So it’s just about changing the narrative … and saying: ‘No, you don’t have to do that.’ ”
Jackson said he tells many of the people he encounters that he can make more money now, painting or doing construction, than he ever did selling marijuana.
As they continue with their work, the team members say they hope to cement a reputation as trusted members of the community, independent of police.
Another team member, Steve Floyd, said, “We’re here to protect the community, and we’re here to be a buffer between the community and the police.”
Cotton said some members were recently detained by law enforcement from another jurisdiction while working at protests — until she called and asked for their release.