Officials working to prevent gun violence in St. Paul say that their efforts are working, and could become a model for neighboring cities and counties.
Director Brooke Blakey with the Office for Neighborhood Safety presented the information to City Council members Wednesday, explaining how efforts between her team, the St. Paul Police Department and community organizations are making the city safer.
"We're beyond capacity but we're continuing to grow and work with families," Blakey said. "We have to continue to just keep plugging away at it."
The year has tested how initiatives run by Blakey's department would work, and data presented Wednesday showed progress.
Nearly 130 referrals were sent to Project PEACE, a gun violence intervention approach that connects victims and perpetrators to programming and support. Data provided at Wednesday's presentation says those referrals helped relocate nine families to safer housing, sent 55 people to city or county agencies for help and led to 119 gun seizures.
St. Paul has also seen seven homicides so far this year, compared to 13 at this time last year, when the city saw a record 40 killings.
The work is a collaboration between Project PEACE and the St. Paul Police Department's Operation ASPIRE unit (A St. Paul Intervention and Recovery Effort). Although that collaboration has been in its pilot phase since last July, SPPD Chief Axel Henry said it has worked to prevent crime where police are not wanted.
"Prevention, intervention, enforcement — none of those pieces work without the other piece being there," Henry said during the presentation. "We're a component like many other components under the overarching umbrella that support this."
One community organization that's part of that umbrella is the Healing Streets Project, a group of people who work to reduce gun violence through intervention and grief services. When gunfire erupted at a St. Paul funeral repast this February, killing two people and injuring three others, project staff were at Regions Hospital to help console dozens of family members and friends.
Program supervisor Mark Campbell says the connection between staff and residents helps them to respond quickly during a crisis, connecting people with support before they turn towards violence. Campbell says they plan to contact neighboring cities and counties to offer advice on violence prevention.
"We don't pick and choose. We want to make sure that everybody receives healing," Campbell said. "Because we know hurt people hurt people. So the people that have caused harm are also in need of services — are in need of support."
Blakey said much of the work her office has done so far was funded by a portion of the $4 million American Rescue Plan dollars granted to St. Paul last year. Although there has been progress, officials said more work could be done.
Parks and Recreation Department Director Andy Rodriguez said collaboration with his department and the Office of Neighborhood Safety has helped to provide better security at schools and recreation centers, including at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center where an employee shot a teen this January.
Despite new strategies to prevent incidents like that from happening again, Rodriguez said the shooting rattled center staff.
"What happened was unimaginable. No one could have anticipated it, and it's hard to reflect back on it," Rodriguez said, adding that his department and St. Paul Public Schools feel they "could've done better."
A security audit could bring camera updates to all of the city's 26 recreation centers, and Blakey said new staff could help to make the Oxford Community Center, where the Jimmy Lee center is housed, safer. Those roles could cost around $429,000, which will be proposed for City Council members to approve next Wednesday.
Committee members praised Blakey and other attendees for their work and progress at the end of their presentation. Although it's difficult to prove that a crime was prevented, Fourth Ward Councilmember Mitra Jalali called their efforts remarkable.
"The headline of the breakdowns is always so easy," Councilmember Jalali said. "The harder story to tell is what we've spent nearly two hours to unpack today."