With violent crime up, Minneapolis tries something new: Violence interrupters

Muhammad Abdul-Ahad leads a team of about 20 interrupters in south Minneapolis. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Muhammad Abdul-Ahad and his crew of about 20 Minneapolis “violence interrupters” were outside of Stop N Shop Tobacco at 17th and Lake Street in Minneapolis when a guy walked up to them looking intoxicated and agitated.

“Something was going on,” Abdul-Ahad recalled. 

A few minutes later, two cars pulled up and a couple of men got out. One had a gun. 

Then the store’s security guard came out with a gun on his hip saying, “Hey, hey, hey what’s goin’ on?”

That’s when Abdul-Ahad’s team sprang into action, trying to separate the men. Trying to prevent another tragedy in a city that’s seen far too many this year.

“It gives the person a chance to think, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” Abdul-Ahad said. “It’s like, you’re not just shootin’ one person now, you gotta shoot everyone out here.”

Abdul-Ahad’s crew separated the parties and got one into an Uber. Incident over. No headlines were made that night, and that’s the point: To stop the bloodshed.

Borne of decades of frustration with Minneapolis Police that culminated in the killing of George Floyd and the rioting that followed, city elected officials and activists are putting faith in this new but untested — in Minneapolis anyway — method of keeping the peace. The unarmed violence interrupters are little more than lightly trained citizens, but they bring a lot of street experience.

City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said the interrupters hit the ground running. 

“For a program that was deployed a full year early, I found them to be up for the task,” he said. “I think it’s an essential investment for the city to be making.”

Minneapolis City Council member Linea Palmisano said she’s gotten conflicting information about the interrupters’ effectiveness, with some saying they’re not working out as planned. 

“Given that these are relationship-based, I think it is reasonable to expect it would take a while to get up and running,” said Palmisano, who chairs the council’s budget committee. “And members of the public sometimes don’t realize that violence interrupters are not there to be able to interrupt things like carjackings. A lot of the work they do is about prevention of group violence and retaliatory acts.”  

Abdul-Ahad grew up in south Minneapolis, which is where he lived when he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic drugs and launder money. He got out in 2016, and now owns a company that delivers auto parts and tires. At night he works as team leader for this south side team of interrupters.

The city began subcontracting with neighborhood associations to pay crews of independent contractors $30 an hour for the work, which as yet isn’t well defined. Many of them are convicted felons and former gang members who use their street smarts and community connections to try to quell conflict.

Sasha Cotton, the city’s youth violence prevention coordinator, defended the city’s investment in the unit: “I know some people hear that and think ‘Oh that’s a really high wage’ but obviously the work that they’re doing is labor-intensive and also quite dangerous.” 

The MinneapolUS violence interrupters were back at the Stop N Shop store recently, trying to help a city battling a wave of violence sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and exacerbated by a global pandemic and recession that pushed young people out of rec centers and schools and into the streets.

As violence spiked this summer, city officials moved $1.1 million from the Police Department to the Office of Violence Prevention to create four teams of about 20 interrupters each, two in north Minneapolis and two in south. Most of the money — 70% — goes toward salaries, and the mayor has proposed $2.5 million for the program in 2021, enough for them to work year-round. The budget also includes money to open two offices for the interrupters.

Violence interrupters walking Lake Street recently in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Even though the interrupters were only out in full force for six to eight weeks before they pulled back, the mayor’s budget is based on the program’s effectiveness in reducing gun and gang violence in other cities, Cotton said. This week, the City Council moved another $2 million from the Police Department to Cotton’s Office of Violence Prevention; the council is expected to pass the budget Wednesday.

The rollout of the interrupters hasn’t been entirely smooth. After former police officer Derek Chauvin — accused of Floyd’s killing — bonded out of jail and protests broke out, the interrupters locked arms and got between protesters and police, and some of them were detained but then released after Cotton contacted police. That angered protesters, who accused them of being with police. Soon after, a TV station reported the interrupters were sidelined just weeks after hitting the streets. 

But Cotton said they didn’t go anywhere and merely pulled back temporarily, training more and walking the streets less. The interrupters took the week of the election off.

“We just felt like it wasn’t the appropriate role for the interrupters, their focus really should be on working with communities that are impacted by violence,” Cotton said. “When we had 40 guys walking around on the north side it was very visible and necessary to sort of have the impact that we wanted with engagement and the ability to reach the large number of people who were out in community. But with the weather being what it is, people are not congregating on streets corners, and in front of businesses and in parks.”

Now a limited number of interrupters work a modified schedule of 16 to 20 hours per week, or as needed, she said.

Jamil Jackson, team leader for north side interrupters, said they were taking a step back from being on the streets and focusing on training and finding an indoor space for youth.

“We’re focusing on being in West Broadway… the divide for gangs,” he said.

Jackson, a convicted felon who now runs his own outreach program, said his team started with 48 interrupters and scaled back to about 20 now. They listen to police scanners and talk to people in the neighborhoods. Once they get a space and more money, he will ramp numbers back up, he said.

Cotton acknowledged the program needs work because it was implemented so quickly and in the face of a rapid rise in gun violence. They’ll be especially attuned to their relationship with the Police Department in 2021, she said.

“It can be difficult to implement at full capacity and plan at the same time,” she said, which accounts for some of the scaling back. “With this being a pilot, we’re learning.”

The MinneapolUS program is part of Cure Violence, which was created by Dr. Gary Slutkin, former head of the World Health Organization’s intervention development unit and epidemiologist who believes violence should be treated like an epidemic. Offenders, he argues, shouldn’t be seen as “bad” but, rather, just people with problems.

In a Nov. 19 briefing to a City Council committee, Brent Decker, chief program officer for Cure Violence Global, said it’s not just about finding people willing to go out in the streets, but also a management structure and protocols to ensure interventions are effective. Cure Violence will be doing a site evaluation in Minneapolis and guiding the program.

The program has reduced hotspots and shootings in cities including Chicago, Baltimore and New York City, Decker said. The program has its critics, however: The effectiveness of violence interrupters has been questioned in Kansas City, Louisville — where the program paused after an interrupter was accused of rape — and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to renew two neighborhood programs in 2013 after police said the interrupters didn’t work with them.

City leaders are desperate: Some 500 people have been wounded by gunfire this year — a 15-year high — about 80 people have been killed, and violent crimes like robbery and aggravated assault are up 17% from the five-year average.

Cotton said the public should appreciate that the interrupters come from unconventional backgrounds, because it’s likely to help their work. 

Yulonda Royster is a mother of five who grew up near Cup Foods and lived in north Minneapolis for about 10 years. Her oldest son is in prison after getting involved in a gang-related shooting. As an interrupter, she knows some of the young people involved in “street activities.” Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Abdul-Ahad said he hand-picked his entire team. After getting out of prison, he ended up on a train from Illinois to Minneapolis with Ra’ Sekou P’tah, who had just done 20 years in prison for conspiracy. Both of them say they had committed crimes, but not the ones they were convicted of.

P’tah said he sold drugs in Georgia from age 9 to 15, before serving 20 years for cocaine conspiracy and then meeting Abdul-Ahad on that train.

“I took my time in prison seriously,” he said, moving north to Minnesota because of its good educational system.

He said he has four jobs now, including general manager at a fitness center.

Cedric Thomas is a 45-year-old father of three who frames houses in Rogers during the day and walks the streets with the interrupters at night. After Floyd died, he wanted to give back to the community. He grew up “running the streets” in north Minneapolis and said he did things he doesn’t want to talk about. 

“Just having that stain on you sometimes,” can make it hard to get a job, he said. A job at Wells Fargo fell through after a background check.

He said it’s gratifying to get a good reception from the young people they encounter on the streets.

“I feel like this may be my calling,” he said, as the interrupters walked their regular route in Uptown, which includes a stop at a homeless encampment right off Nicollet. “They’re receptive, they sit up and talk to us, chop it up.”

He said given some resources they could help the young people on the streets, too.

Adarryl Hunter is also on the team of interrupters, and was partially inspired to join because he grew up with George Floyd. He shared photos of Floyd, with whom he reconnected in Minneapolis. 

There are also coaches, teachers and moms on the teams.

Yulonda Royster is a mother of five who grew up near Cup Foods — the site of the Floyd killing — and lived in north Minneapolis for about 10 years. Her oldest son is in prison after getting involved in a gang-related shooting, and so as an interrupter, she knows some of the young people involved in what she calls “street activities.”

 “I can approach these guys, I know them,” she said. “They’ve told me personally, ‘We do want help. We want something to do.’ They’re living in fear themselves.”

She works in finance from 8 to 4 and with the interrupters at night.

“Our kids, a lot of them, they want to do good,” she said.

Cotton thinks the crime wave is the combined result of jails and prisons letting bad actors out due to the pandemic; Floyd’s death setting people off; police losing legitimacy and idle young people unable to go to traditional places of respite.

“We’ve seen violence this year like we have not seen in a really long time,” she said. “If the interrupters can help prevent any piece of it, then it is a worthwhile venture.”