State GOP lawmakers question Minneapolis use of ‘violence interrupters’

Lawsuit alleges they didn’t provide public documents requested under open records law

By: - March 29, 2022 6:01 am

Violence interrupters walking Lake Street in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis in December 2020. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis’ effort to use nonprofit groups instead of cops to keep the peace faces twin attacks from unlikely bedfellows: Republican lawmakers who question the effectiveness of the groups — and progressive activists demanding more transparency about how the groups spend city money. 

“I am concerned about the accountability of public money given to nonprofit organizations,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, during a Monday hearing on his public safety bill. “I’m very cautious.” 

Meanwhile, Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) asked six nonprofit groups getting city money for invoices and training records — information they’re required to disclose under their contracts — and got no response. So they sued. 

Michelle Gross, president of CUAPB, said it’s a simple right-to-know lawsuit. ”We have a right as taxpayers to know what the hell these guys are doing with this money.”

Progressives across the nation have turned to nonprofit groups to try to intervene and break the cycle of violence and retribution in high-crime areas. They are sometimes called “violence interrupters” and often staffed by ex-gang members and people who spent time in prison. 

The Minneapolis City Council recently increased funding by $5 million, to a total $7.5 million, for the MinneapolUS Strategic Outreach Initiative, which sends violence interrupters into the streets.

Borne of decades of frustration with the Minneapolis Police Department, culminating in the killing of George Floyd and the rioting that followed, Minneapolis elected officials have tried this approach amid activists’ calls to defund police or at least use them less often.

The groups send lightly trained, unarmed violence interrupters into the streets and employ strategies from Cure Violence, a program developed in Chicago in the 1990s that treats violence like an epidemic, with a public health approach that employs 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. 

The Minneapolis rollout hit a few bumps: During one operation, a member of the Agape Movement — a group that includes former gang members — told the Reformer he will likely kill someone some day. And last year a member of the nonprofit city contractor We Push for Peace was caught on video beating a homeless man outside a grocery store where the group was providing security.  

During a Thursday public hearing on Democrats’ $150 million public safety package, Republican lawmakers questioned the amount of money allocated toward violence interrupters to help with public safety, pointing to the CUAPB lawsuit.

CUAPB President Michelle Gross said her group requested monthly progress reports by the six groups — which were initially required under their contracts — but city officials replied that written reports weren’t required. 

Sasha Cotton, director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said the opposition is disappointing. 

“It really feels like an opportunity to exploit small and innovative work… and quite honestly these organizations that are led by Black and brown individuals,” Cotton said.

City officials decided after conferring with their national partners to meet with the groups regularly and have them do annual reports, so they don’t spend all their time writing reports, Cotton said.

When CUAPB asked for the notes of those conversations, the city said there weren’t any, Gross said.

Gross thinks the groups have largely been used to keep watch on protests, where she said the violence interrupters harassed and threatened demonstrators. 

“I don’t call ‘em violence interrupters — I call ‘em protest interrupters,” Gross said. 

She said in some respects the groups are less accountable than police — at least with police, citizens can take down a badge number and call a supervisor. The violence interrupters wear orange shirts and hoodies, with no name tags or badges.

“​​They might be doing magnificent work or they might be harassing people doing protests,” Gross said.

CUAPB sued six nonprofits: Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, We Push for Peace, Metro Youth Diversion Center, Restoration Incorporated, Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO) and Urban Youth Conservation. CANDO is the fiscal agent for Agape.

The groups told KSTP, which first reported the lawsuit, that the city provided CUAPB with all the documents it requested. Gross said she supports using different approaches aside from the usual police, fire and ambulance response, but the groups getting public money still need to be accountable.

“That doesn’t mean we just open the coffers and dish out money,” Gross said.

The fracas has drawn notice of GOP legislators. 

Limmer, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee suggested tried and true programs have greater accountability than new programs run by “recently formed nonprofits.” He said, accurately, that some members of the groups that are supposed to de-escalate situations have a history of violence. 

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has studied violence interrupters and told the Reformer last year the groups need more study, and are clever branding of an unproven product.

The effectiveness of violence interrupters has been questioned in Chicago, Kansas City and Louisville — where the program was paused after an interrupter was accused of rape. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to renew two neighborhood programs in 2013 after police said the interrupters didn’t work with them.

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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.