Youth violence in Minneapolis

The fuzzy math behind the city's struggle to curb the crime wave

Youth violence in Minneapolis
Mike Kooiman

Inside a white-trimmed blue duplex on Minneapolis's North Side, Catrice Champion sits in a pristinely decorated dining room across from a portrait of her son, a chubby-cheeked boy named Charles Woods-Wilson, better known simply as "Chuckie."

"I'm thinking this child is the sweetest kid," says Champion. "At the beginning of the day, he was sweet to me. And even at the end of the day, he was sweet to me. But my child was another child when he left the door."

Eight years ago, when he was 17 years old, Chuckie helped start the "DTs," a violent clique still prominent in the city today. On Halloween 2007, Chuckie's street life caught up to him: He was found murdered alongside a friend in a north Minneapolis crack house.

Catrice Champion's son Chuckie was found murdered in a north Minneapolis crack house in 2007
Mark N. Kartarik
Catrice Champion's son Chuckie was found murdered in a north Minneapolis crack house in 2007
Councilmember Gary Schiff says the mayor is "cherry-picking" data on youth violence
Mark N. Kartarik
Councilmember Gary Schiff says the mayor is "cherry-picking" data on youth violence

At first, Champion wanted vengeance. After testifying at the trial of her son's killer, a 51-year-old thug named Val Diggins, Champion ominously raised two fingers to her left eye for the entire courtroom to see, vowing there would be justice for her son beyond what a judge could offer. There would be an eye for an eye. But over the past five years, as she's seen so many other family members and neighbors die the same way, the desire for revenge has dissipated. Now she simply worries.

"Having loved ones die on the street has taken a toll on me, has taken a toll on my kids," says Champion. "I have the strength. I don't know where it came from. It has to be God."

The city of Minneapolis is at war with its troubled youth. In the mid-2000s, after incidents of youth-related violence spiked, city politicians vowed to tackle the problem head on. The city released its "Blueprint for Action" plan in 2008. The goal: to bring the youth homicide rate down to zero.

According to Mayor R.T. Rybak and others in City Hall, the effort has been an enormous success. Since 2006, Rybak says, we've seeen an astonishing 59 percent decline in violent crime involving youths.

"I know there are a lot of funerals that didn't happen specifically because of this work and this plan," says Rybak. "This community should be incredibly proud of that."

But Rybak's math has been difficult for some to swallow, especially in a summer pocked with headline-grabbing incidents of violent crime involving youths. In City Hall, Rybak's loudest critic has been City Councilmember Gary Schiff, who believes the mayor is looking at the wrong data entirely. As Schiff points out, statistics gathered by Minneapolis hospitals suggest we've made far less progress when it comes to assaults on young people. Last year also marked the second-highest number of youth homicides in at least eight years.

"The data is inconsistent," says Schiff. "When data is sending mixed messages, you still need some explanation, or you have to dig deeper, or come up with a clear answer of why. And I don't think we're asking those questions."

Away from the political dispute, in Minneapolis's most troubled neighborhoods, residents say tension has never been higher. Cliques like the DTs are on the rise. Guns are cheap and easy to find. Taking into account this summer's high-profile murders, progress is hard to see.

"We're so far deep," says Jamil Jackson, a basketball coach on the North Side and former street hustler. "It's almost sad to say, but it's almost like a generation gone."

When it comes to youth violence, any method of measuring trends requires some amount of educated guessing. While the most severe crimes like homicides are easy to track, other violent crimes — street fights, robberies — frequently go unreported and never appear in police documents, says Dr. Greta Massetti, lead scientist for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Violence Prevention.

"The less serious forms, especially those that don't result in injuries, are much less likely to get reported," says Massetti. "Even when they do result in injuries, sometimes they will involve maybe a visit to the doctor or the emergency department, but it's not likely that they are resulting in a police report."

By all indicators, youth violence across America plummeted around the mid-'90s, reaching a 10-year low in 2001, according to CDC data, which measures the problem by a multitude of reporting methods on city and federal levels. The explanation for the drop is subject to much debate among experts. Some suggest the decline can be attributed to the end of the crack cocaine wave; others link it to better law enforcement tactics. But the decline itself is undisputed, and could be seen across the country, including Minneapolis.

In the early 2000s, however, Minneapolis began to defy the national trend. While youth violence in other cities remained flat — and still relatively low — Minneapolis saw youth crime skyrocket. There is no single explanation as to why it went up, but it's certain that youth crime was an extremely low priority for law enforcement, culminating in the police department cutting the juvenile unit entirely in 2003, says Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan.

"We had a failure through the whole system," says Dolan. "There was no truancy enforcement. There was no curfew enforcement. We had no juvenile unit. We weren't even investigating juvenile crime.... Juvenile crimes were a very, very low priority."

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