The wail of sirens starts long before nightfall.
Gunfire erupted in broad daylight next to a north Minneapolis park as dozens of kids played last Monday, injuring four people. Barely 90 minutes later, bullets tore through four more victims at a notorious intersection along West Broadway, apparently in retaliation for the earlier shooting. All told, 10 were wounded in four separate shootings that day — all before the sun went down.
The bloodshed came one day after gunmen unleashed more than 70 rounds on a crowded Uptown street, continuing a spate of violence that has killed eight and injured at least 118 people since Memorial Day.
Officials blame the grim trend on the coronavirus pandemic, shattered public trust following the killing of George Floyd and the reluctance of some Minneapolis officers to take initiative amid intense scrutiny. But the violent surge is also becoming a political litmus test for the Minneapolis City Council, a majority of which continues to call for defunding the police.
Some council members and activists see the focus on crime stats as a way to stoke public fears and distract from the issue of police reform, while law enforcement supporters contend the recent scourge only reinforces the need for effective policing.
“We’re not going to move in any way that makes people less safe,” Council Member Jeremiah Ellison told frustrated Jordan neighborhood residents at a meeting to address the violence.
Ellison, among the most vocal proponents of dismantling the city’s police force, assured constituents that “resources and tools they have at their disposal” would not be stripped from officers until an alternative, robust public safety strategy can take their place. Another North Side council member, Phillipe Cunningham, says he helped orchestrate an emergency meeting of gang leaders to address the ongoing violence.
So far this year, ShotSpotter activations and 911 calls about gunshots in Minneapolis have more than doubled from a year ago, according to a Star Tribune analysis of police data. Out of 3,218 such shots-fired calls this year, nearly half have been filed since George Floyd was killed on May 25.
Through Tuesday, 190 people had been shot across Minneapolis. That’s up 47% from this time last year and significantly higher than the five-year average for the same time span, according to MPD data.
In one case that underscores how entrenched the problem is, authorities say a 17-year-old boy who was shot in the leg last week has been wounded in three shootings over the past month and a half.
The surge in gun violence is not confined to Minneapolis. In St. Paul, reported firearm discharges have more than doubled when compared to this time last year. The first two weeks of June were particularly violent, as shots-fired calls quintupled from 2019.
Thirty-one people in the capital city have been shot in the last month alone — a third of the year’s overall victim count. Homicides are already on track to surpass 2019’s all-time high in shooting deaths.
“My fear is that this is just the beginning,” said Steven Belton, president of the Twin Cities Urban League, while visiting the scene of a quadruple shooting near Merwin’s Liquors in north Minneapolis. “Parents are overwhelmed,” he said, likening the financial and emotional toll of COVID-19 to a “pressure cooker.” “People are unemployed, stressed out because of that ... looking for a way to release it.”
Thurman Barnes, assistant director of the New Jersey Center on Gun Violence Research, a think tank based out of Rutgers University, said the ripple effects from Floyd’s death may have contributed to increasing violence in Minneapolis, much as it did in Baltimore after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Floyd’s case, he pointed out, followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in Kentucky and Georgia, respectively, two other widely publicized killings of African-Americans.
“There is sometimes a sense of lawlessness” that comes after high-profile killings that is steeped in distrust of police, said Barnes, who’s an associate professor in the university’s department of public health. “Now we’re supposed to trust the police to protect and serve, we’re supposed to abide by the law?”
Minneapolis police chief of staff Art Knight said he understood the public outrage over police brutality and Floyd’s death but slammed city leaders for turning a blind eye to “the violence in this community.”
“It’s pretty sad,” Knight said. “When cops do something wrong, we’re going to hold them accountable, but you can’t have 111 people shot, man, that’s crazy.”
Law enforcement officials say feuding street gangs are largely to blame for the chaos. Those individuals aren’t beholden to shuttered businesses and schools, or affected by Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency order.
“What they do is personal and it’s driven by social media,” said Ramsey County undersheriff Mike Martin, who serves as president of the Minnesota chapter of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association. “They’re still driving around selling dope on the street, but now they can wear face masks and not look out of place.”
Some youths appear emboldened by the ability to conceal their identities in public, Martin said, posting videos online flaunting cash and drugs, “laughing like it’s a game of cops and robbers.”
Investigators are still sorting out what led to recent shootings, but the working theory is that most were the result of ongoing gang feuds — between north Minneapolis gangs, but also street crews from St. Paul. For instance, officials suspect that members of the High End-affiliated gang were involved in Sunday’s mass shooting in Uptown, in which officials say that at least half of the 11 victims were from St. Paul.
The following day, someone opened fire on a group of Low End gang members gathered at a makeshift memorial next to North Commons Park, while dozens of children were playing nearby. About an hour and a half later, a shootout left four people injured at the Winner gas station, a known High End hangout whose reputation for violence has earned it the grim nickname, “the Murder Station.” Detectives are exploring the possibility that that shooting was in retaliation for the earlier attack.
Historically, violent crime tends to escalate around this time of the year, not only because schools are out and the warmer weather is drawing more people outside, but because so many gang death anniversaries fall during these months. The dates are emblazoned in the minds of every patrol officer working the streets, since vigils meant to honor those dead and gone sometimes attract further violence.
As a result, police have stepped up enforcement in neighborhoods that have traditionally had the highest rates of violent crime, with help from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office. Mayor Jacob Frey also called on the FBI and Secret Service to step in.
But not all diversion methods require police intervention, advocates say.
Sasha Cotton, who runs Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention, said that non-law enforcement strategies have proved successful in stopping gang retaliations, singling out hospital-based intervention programs and so-called “violence interrupters” — former gang members who have retained the respect of youths and still have an ear to the street, allowing them to step in and help defuse disagreements before they escalate into gunfire. She also pointed to the civilian patrols that sprang up during the civil unrest that followed Floyd’s death.
“Even with a small investment, we’re able to do really significant work,” Cotton said in a Zoom panel discussion with Cities United, a national organization dedicated to ending violence among African-American men. “We saw them redirect things, like potential carjackings and drug distribution and gang violence, in the way that police never would be able to.”
One of the strategies already in place in Minneapolis is Group Violence Intervention (GVI), an offshoot of the well-regarded Ceasefire program used in other cities to fight gang violence.
In Ramsey County, officials are pursuing a similar approach after years of debate, recently applying for a $180,000 federal grant to implement their own version of GVI. A coalition of black community organizations in St. Paul submitted a separate grant application to fund similar initiatives. It’s unclear how many projects will be bankrolled and when a decision will be made.
If the city’s application is approved, the grant would fund a dedicated violence prevention coordinator, like Cotton in Minneapolis.
“It’s great, but I worry we’re putting all of our eggs in that basket,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “We can’t have a summer like we had last year.”
Staff writers MaryJo Webster and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.