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Seeking Safety: A blueprint for reducing youth crime that works

Almost every time a teenager was gunned down in Minneapolis, Mayor R.T. Rybak took to the street corners to console family and friends of the victim and to search for answers.

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Seeking Safety: A blueprint for reducing youth crime that works
Greg Barnes
, The Fayetteville Observer

Almost every time a teenager was gunned down in Minneapolis, Mayor R.T. Rybak took to the street corners to console family and friends of the victim and to search for answers.

More often than not, Rybak said, people in those neighborhoods told him they could see it coming. The victims almost always led lives marked by violence. Most were young gangbangers with guns and little hope, teens who seemed predestined to die in a city that Time magazine dubbed Murderopolis in 1996.

With every killing, Rybak wondered the same thing about the people who knew the victim was on the wrong path: "Why the hell didn't they do anything?"

That thought remained with Rybak when Minneapolis - like so many other cities across America - had a defining moment that brought the city to action.

On June 17, 2006, high school basketball player Brian Cole was shot to death during a festival in north Minneapolis - another casualty of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

Shortly afterward, Rybak said, he assembled some of his staff and headed to a daylong mayors conference in Washington. There, he said, mayors from cities across the country were asking the same question: What can we do to stop our children from killing each other?

Before the conference ended, Rybak grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled four ideas:

Connect every youth with a trusted adult.

Intervene at the first sign that youth are at risk of violence.

Restore youth who have gone down the wrong path.

Unlearn the culture of violence in our community.

Rybak served three terms as mayor before leaving office earlier this year. But the notes he scribbled eight years ago have become guiding principles for his city's effort to stop the violence.

They are at the heart of the strategies in the "Minneapolis Blueprint for Action to Prevent Youth Violence." The 36-page document was rolled out in early 2008 after nearly two years of intensive study and debate. The original 34-step plan was revised last year to incorporate new strategies after the city was invited to join the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.

Minneapolis continues to have problems. Many people don't feel safe in its largely poor, minority neighborhoods, especially those on the north side where Cole was killed. Many people in those neighborhoods appear to have a deep-seated distrust of police.

But Minneapolis officials tout the city's successes. From 2006 to 2012, statistics from the city show, crimes involving youths dropped 57 percent. Gun crimes dropped even more, by 67 percent. Youths were 39 percent less likely to be shot and 60 percent less likely to be murdered.

While it is true that violent crime among juveniles has fallen dramatically across the country in that same span, Minneapolis officials doubt they would have seen their results without the blueprint and the many youth prevention and intervention programs that grew out of it.

"I am so proud of our community for not succumbing to the defeatist attitude of having kids die in our streets," Rybak said. "How can you not act when you have kids dying in your city?"

The Fayetteville Observer traveled to Minneapolis this month to learn more about the Blueprint for Action as part of "Seeking Safety," the newspaper's yearlong search for potential solutions to Fayetteville's crime problems by examining what works elsewhere.

This is the final monthly installment of the project, which has taken an Observer reporter and a photographer to 13 cities and seven states.

Before the "Blueprint for Action," Rybak said, "I couldn't say I knew what to do" to prevent youth violence. "By 2007, I knew what to do."

Last year, not a single youth under the age of 18 died from violence in the streets of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is a vibrant city of just under 400,000 residents, the center of a metropolitan area with a population of about 3.5 million. In the Midwest, only Chicago has a bigger economy than the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis is known for its lakes, its financial district and its skyways that allow people to walk from skyscraper to skyscraper without exposure to the brutal cold of winter.

Outsiders do not generally associate the city with violent crime, largely because so much of it is confined to five or six neighborhoods on the north side.

Minneapolis stepped up its battle against crime in 2005. More police officers were hired to patrol the streets. The Minneapolis Police Department bought the latest and best crime-fighting technology. Police reconstituted a juvenile crime division and turned to community-based outreach.

In many respects, the approach worked.

According to the original "Blueprint for Action," by the end of 2007 violent crime in the city had fallen 13 percent from a year earlier. Violent crime among juveniles was down 27 percent, and overall juvenile crime was down 15 percent.

But Rybak and other city leaders knew that police tactics alone could not solve their problem. In January 2007, they convened the Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee. Borrowing from Boston's successful Operation Ceasefire initiative that began in the 1990s, Minneapolis decided to attack its crime problem as if it were a public health issue.

To stem the epidemic of youth violence, city leaders agreed, children had to be vaccinated against it. Children headed toward trouble had to be caught in time. And those who fell through the cracks needed to be saved.

This effort spawned the blueprint with its four core principles.

The most important of those principles, Rybak said, is intervening at the first sign a child is headed for trouble. And while he believes the city has struggled with some parts of the blueprint - especially mentoring and changing the culture of violence - he sees success in early intervention.

"Collectively, we know when a child is losing his way," Rybak said.

Minneapolis knows because so many adults have joined forces to keep an eye on youths - schools officials, police, clergy, community groups and workers in nonprofit organizations.

Two big initiatives for keeping up with the lives of children are the Juvenile Supervision Center and a program that employs teenagers and young adults as ambassadors in troubled neighborhoods.

The juvenile center, housed in the basement of the historic City Hall, provides a safe haven for children ages 10 to 17 who have been picked up by police for low-level offenses such as truancy, violating curfew or shoplifting.

Before the center opened, police had two main options - don't bother picking children up or put them in juvenile detention. Neither proved an effective intervention.

Today, more than 2,500 children a year are taken to the center, which operates around-the-clock and is funded jointly by the city, the county and the school system. It is operated by The Link, a nonprofit organization.

Blaine Turnbull, the center's manager, said children stay at the center for an average of about two hours. In that time, the staff talks to them about why they were picked up and what kind of help they might need.

Most of the children are either then sent home or to school by a transport officer or a staff member. About 30 percent of the time, parents pick up their children, Turnbull said.

Within seven days - and usually much sooner - the school system is notified that a specific child has been to the center, Turnbull said.

The burden then falls on Colleen Kaibel, the dropout prevention coordinator for Minneapolis public schools.

Each week, Kaibel takes the list of names and needs of each child and places the kids with one of 57 mentors, about half of whom are paid through the national nonprofit organization AmeriCorps. The others are volunteers.

The mentors work directly with the students, their families and any service or government organizations the children may need.

Of the thousands of kids who pass through the Juvenile Supervision Center each year, only about 25percent ever return, said Josh Peterson, the youth intervention coordinator for the Minneapolis Health Department.

The program using teens on the streets is called Build. It is patterned after a program by the same name started more than 40 years ago in Chicago. The name was originally an acronym for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development.

The eight street workers in the program were chosen this summer for their leadership skills. At least two are former gang members. They all come from the same north side neighborhood, and all went through 40 hours of training.

Their mission is to stem violence by reaching out to the kids in the neighborhood, to show them that they can lead productive, healthy lives without joining or staying in a gang.

"We want it to be where kids actually have a childhood," said Soldon Armstrong, a 21-year-old former gang member who said he experienced far more than his share of violence growing up.

Recently, Build received a grant to hold a neighborhood party: "What's Good About Your Hood?" The young program workers signed on corporate sponsors and stage the event themselves. About 500 people attended, and there was no violence.

Now, the mission is to "build our future leaders of the community," Armstrong said.

The Build leaders say they have an advantage in the work they are doing to reclaim their neighborhood. They have seen the violence and can relate to the young people on the streets.

"Just imagine the work we have done in these last two months," said Tacarra Durrah, who is 19. "Where will we be a year from now?"

While those two intervention and prevention programs stand out, there are a host of others.

One of them began about a month ago. It involves police actively working to keep kids from entering the juvenile justice system, where research shows that they are much more likely to get stuck on a path to prison.

Before, youth involved in low-level crimes were either issued a citation, sent home or placed in juvenile detention, said Bruce Folkens, commander of the Minneapolis Police Department's Special Crimes Unit.

Now, they appear before a police sergeant whose job it is to assess their character and whether they should be admitted to a diversion program tailored to meet their needs and keep them out of juvenile courts.

"We're trying to get them at the earliest possible chance," Folkens said.

Peterson, the youth intervention coordinator, said many of the teens who enter a diversion program are matched with youth workers through Tubman, a nonprofit organization that specializes in domestic violence issues. The youth workers serve as mentors, case managers and family advocates, steering the kids in the right direction.

Folkens said he is encouraged by the continued efforts to reduce youth violence in Minneapolis.

"I think things are getting better," he said.

It is hard not to draw a comparison between the early crime-prevention efforts in Minneapolis and the efforts taking place in Fayetteville today.

In April, Mayor Nat Robertson called residents together for a "Safe Streets Symposium" on crime.

Two months later, the Fayetteville City Council approved a tax increase that will be used to hire 59 more people for the Police Department, mostly sworn officers.

Harold Medlock, who became Fayetteville's police chief in February 2013, has been pushing his brand of community policing hard, leading to better relations between residents and police.

Early this year at a Community Watch meeting for the B Street neighborhood, resident Pam Carter complained again and again about the drug dealers and blight on Link Street.

By August, Carter's message had changed. In an email, she praised the work police are doing in her neighborhood.

"I truly believe that the B Street neighborhood is being transformed and I hope to see new construction and people finding out what a convenient and wonderful place to live that it can be," wrote Carter, who works in the Observer's circulation department. "I have noticed that Link Street has been quieter lately and less drug-selling activity, so Lt. (Dan) Beldon's hard work and the hard work of his officers are making a positive impact."

Police have placed surveillance cameras at the main intersections to Carter's neighborhood and in other areas of downtown. Cameras are now going up along Bragg Boulevard. They are being monitored at a new real-time crime center at the Police Department.

Police announced last month that the department has received a $298,000 grant from the Governor's Crime Commission to use toward gun and gang violence prevention.

Medlock said the improvements police have made in the past year are helping to reduce crime in Fayetteville. He said violent crime is down 7.2percent in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period in 2013, and overall crime is down 12.8 percent. There have been about 600 fewer home break-ins and considerably fewer robberies, he said.

But, as is the case in Minneapolis, Medlock knows police cannot do it all alone.

While proud of the results community policing is having, Medlock worries that his message is not reaching the city's young people. Two teens have died by violence in the past few months.

Ravon Jordan, 19, was caught in the crossfire between rival gangs at a party in west Fayetteville in June. No one has been charged in his death.

Joseph Braxton III, 16, was shot at a party on Randleman Street in September. Three teenagers have been charged with murder in his death. At least two of those charged had gang affiliations.

In the wake of Jordan's death, Fayetteville City Councilman Larry Wright organized a rally against violence and a brainstorming meeting on reaching out to children. And his efforts were just one indication that people across the community have grown weary of seemingly senseless killings. Last year, the Rev. Mark Rowden began organizing clergy after three murders occurred in the span of a few hours. Mayor Nat Robertson called together a city crime summit in April.

And just last week, a group that includes Rowden and Wright - along with leaders from public schools, Fayetteville State University, the Fayetteville Regional Chamber, nonprofit groups, law enforcement, the newspaper and other organizations - committed to working toward a community-wide effort to attack youth violence at its roots.

They are aiming at what is called a collective impact model to engage the whole community in doing what Minneapolis is trying - reaching kids before real trouble starts and turning them around if it does.

In many cities the Observer has visited for "Seeking Safety," collective impact has been the process used to build the cross-agency collaboration to fight crime, improve education, decrease blight or improve juvenile justice.

In most of those cities, a steering committee spent a year or more researching a particular problem and how to attack it. From there, a set of strategies and goals was developed, and groups were assigned to each one to carry out the work.

Collective impact has proved effective in fighting crime in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Memphis, Tennessee, began using it in late 2006. Within five years, violent crime had declined 23 percent, property crime 26 percent, business robberies 68 percent and bank robberies 61 percent.

It's a difficult and lengthy process, but one that the Observer's reporting through a year of "Seeking Safety" has shown time and again is an approach that works.

This article is reposted with permission of the The Fayetteville Observer, a media partner with WRAL News. Observer staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at barnesg@fayobserver.com or 486-3525.