Hoping to stem retaliatory shootings this summer, the Minneapolis police department is launching a new unit solely focused on gang-related crime.
Chief Janeé Harteau announced the change Wednesday during a City Council briefing about summer crime strategies. Details were sparse Wednesday, but she said the unit would consist of five officers and one sergeant.
"When we have an incident that occurs, we will have a team of people that can go out and understand who is shooting at who," Harteau said in an interview. "And our goal is to prevent the next shooting."
Dozens of shootings and several homicides in recent weeks have been linked to gang-related disputes. Harteau said the team would be regularly tracking gang activity, freeing up others in the department to handle 911 response and community engagement.
“As we look at violent crime in this city, there still is a percentage done by our street-level gangs," Harteau said. "And in order to have a proper immediate response to that and try to prevent the next shooting, we need to have a group ... [whose] function is to specifically address those issues.”
In addition to the Metro Gang Strike Force, which was a metrowide effort, the city at one point had a gang-specific unit. But department spokesman Scott Seroka said it was eliminated in May 2013.
Harteau said the new unit would have a citywide focus, rather than limiting itself to certain areas.
Council President Barb Johnson, who represents the northern half of the North Side, applauded the initiative.
“A lot of these … shots-fired maps reflect gang activity. They’re shooting at each other,” Johnson said. “And it puts everybody at risk. And its disturbing to nice, peaceful neighborhoods.”
Johnson noted that two young children, Nizzel George and Terrell Mayes, have been killed by stray bullets entering their homes in recent years. George’s murder was attributed to a gang feud, while Mayes’ murder was never solved.
She credited U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger for two major gang indictments in recent months. One in March charged seven suspected North Side gang members with drug smuggling, while another in November sought to end a “gang war” by charging 11 people with a range of crimes.
Police often turn to social media for chatter about retaliatory shootings. Some of the violence stems from online insults — on social media and in YouTube rap videos — which police monitor closely.
Investigators also check phones for footage and photos that gang members take of themselves committing violent crimes for bragging or intimidation purposes.
Particularly for gang members, investigators sift through social media profiles to spot, for instance, prohibited people who are shown displaying weapons, or displaying gang signs or illegal drugs. Gang members often use videos, photos and social media as “trophies of their criminal exploits,” authorities said in a recent search warrant application.
Following the chaos that erupted after several hundred teenagers descended on downtown this St. Patricks Day, Johnson asked Harteau how the department was handling these gatherings in the future.
Harteau said their school resource officers try to keep an eye on possible activity, but following the various social media platforms can prove challenging.
“Our biggest challenge with these groups is, although we can monitor Facebook and some other social media outlets, they’re using Snapchat, they’re using Instagram, things that we are not necessarily on,” Harteau said. “They can get a really large group together in a short period of time.”
Harteau said altogether, the department will have 45 more officers on the street than last summer — in addition to new cadets and community service officers.