Public safety alternatives are untested, viewed skeptically by anti-police activists

By: - July 12, 2021 6:02 am

Agape leader Steve Floyd (center) speaks at a news conference alongside other members including Akeem Cubie (left) on June 3 after working with city workers to reopen 38th Street and Chicago Avenue to car traffic. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

When Minneapolis public works employees arrived at George Floyd Square on June 3 accompanied by some 30 Black men from the Agape Movement — as Minneapolis police in riot gear waited in the wings blocks away — the scene hinted at the city’s fraught early going experiment with alternative public safety models. 

Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center and other cities have turned to so-called credible messenger programs to help try to keep protests peaceful and prevent violence amid an increase in crime. This year, Minneapolis awarded $1 million to seven community organizations to provide “positive outreach and support” as its former police officers began going on trial for George Floyd’s killing.

Reopening 38th Street and Chicago Avenue with Agape’s help, rather than police, was an exercise in using an alternative method for a delicate operation. 

The approach, which often involves hiring former gang members to intervene among their former comrades to make peace, is unproven, criminologists say. 

And, thus far, groups have little community buy-in — activists have swiftly and scornfully rejected them. 

When Agape showed up before dawn to escort city employees into the square, activists like Comrade Link dubbed his former allies “counter-insurgents” and accused them of selling out, since they were being paid up to $40 an hour by the city under a contract worth up to $359,000 from June through November. 

Police abolitionist groups such as Black Visions have been fighting for alternative public safety programs since 2017, and succeeded in getting the Office of Violence Prevention created. Once the city hired a community group to do something like help reopen George Floyd Square, however, the activists lambasted both the group and the city that hired them, said Michelle Phelps, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  

“That just seems incredibly short-sighted,” said Phelps, who is writing a book about Minneapolis police and activist groups.

The city will vote in November on a charter amendment — supported by abolitionist groups — that would restructure public safety to use more community-based programs. “Those same groups of activists,” Phelps said, “are tearing down the legitimacy of those programs as they very shakily try to get on their legs.” 

Violence interruption programs were designed to work in tandem with police, she said, so it shouldn’t be scandalous that Agape and other groups are getting paid by the city.

“The challenge is as soon as these groups are getting money, as soon as they’re seen as collaborating with city leadership or collaborating with police officers, they’re then discredited among the very same activist circles that have been calling for those very kinds of programs,” she said. “(They) say ‘Oh those programs are corrupt because they’ve touched the power and so now we can’t trust them.’ And so it creates this really depressing cycle.”

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of City University of New York, said the groups are called different things, like credible messengers, or “people with former system involvement” or “violence interrupters,” but he said it amounts to the same thing: Clever branding of an unproven product.

“My concern is these are all marketing terms, and we are not making good progress, in my view, nailing down exactly what makes them effective, and they survive too easily on marketing and image,” Butts said. “And we’re just not doing that (research) because it’s too easy to get away with not doing it.”

Phelps said there’s a hostility to rigorous evaluation of the programs among the very groups fighting for them.

“So it’s a really challenging and hard moment to figure out,” she said.

Does Cure Violence really cure violence?

Minneapolis is training another group of street workers, dubbed violence interrupters, to try to intervene and stop violence through a program called Cure Violence. The Chicago-based program treats violence like an epidemic, with a public health approach employing social workers rather than police. Cure Violence claims to have reduced shootings in Chicago, Baltimore and New York City, but its effectiveness has been questioned. 

Roberto Aspholm, an assistant professor of social work at the University of St. Thomas, also researched Cure Violence’s work in Chicago — where he worked on the South Side for eight years after college. He wanted to figure out why the city’s homicide rate held steady from 2004 to 2015 and shot up in 2016, despite Cure Violence’s work.

Baltimore homicides also increased during a Cure Violence pilot program, Aspholm said.

Aspholm said most of the research on the program highlights a few findings — stripped of context and presented as evidence of success — while burying evidence that cuts against that narrative.

“Public officials want something they can say is evidence-based and will take care of the problem,” he said. “It at least shows constituents ‘Hey, we’re doing something.’ … I don’t think that we should delude ourselves.”

Minneapolis Council Member Phillipe Cunningham has been a big backer of the Cure Violence model; he said Mayor Jacob Frey is using the violence interrupters improperly during a recent council meeting.

Cunningham called Cure Violence “an evidence-based, empirically tested scientific approach to disrupting the spread of violence” and blasted the mayor for using Agape workers in George Floyd Square.

“We bring on folks with very specific skill sets — they’re trained in very specific ways of implementing this work,” Cunningham said. “That means that violence interrupters should not be used as protest strike teams, they should not be used for crowd management at protests.”

Sasha Cotton, director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention, said in an email that it’s not unusual for experts to have differing opinions, but research by John Jay College, the Center for Court Innovation, Temple University and Johns Hopkins University have shown that the program reduced gun violence.  

Cure Violence is just one strategy used by OVP to interrupt violence, she said. 

“The epidemic of violence is multi-faceted and our solutions need to be as well,” Cotton said, noting OVP also invests in a program called Group Violence Intervention and a hospital-based violence prevention program called Next Step. 

All three are recommended strategies by the U.S. Department of Justice and have been shown to be effective, she said.

Although Butts, the John Jay professor, said he wants more study, his team wrote a report cited by Cotton. He said the Cure Violence approach — and other community-centered violence prevention strategies — are essential. “We just need to generate stronger models and stronger evaluation evidence to protect such approaches from the organized opposition,” he said.

‘Everything is just so hot and polarized’

Phelps said because Minneapolis is the epicenter of a national conversation about police brutality sparked by Floyd’s murder, “everything is just so hot and polarized.” Activists have disrupted the idea that police own public safety and violence prevention, she said, but it’s difficult to move forward when abolitionists see anything that builds up police legitimacy as a problem.

Butts said if proponents of alternative programs don’t want them tested, then they’re running a “faith-based” program, and that bothers him because he’s a believer in community programs.

“If we want to have fewer police patrolling the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods have to be safe, and to be safe, you need to have strong social structures and people that care and active sidewalks and everything,” he said. “We’re not going to get there as long as we keep pretending to have violence prevention programs that are based upon slogans and marketing.”

So if there’s not enough research on the efficacy of these programs, what’s a city to do? Aspholm said it will take more than throwing a few million dollars at a new program. His view is that reducing violence will take fundamental change, as much economic as judicial: A dignified life and a job that pays a living wage.

“You can’t resolve gun violence in the context of a municipal budget,” he said.

If nothing else, programs like Agape employ people who often have difficulty finding jobs, he said.

Agape spokeswoman Bridgette Stewart said some of the 30 to 40 Agape workers have never held a job, and it’s “really cool to see them come in in the morning” and ask for their vest and live out their motto of “transforming street energy into community energy.”

“I like it as a jobs program,” Aspholm said. “But we shouldn’t lie to ourselves.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.