Youth violence in Minneapolis

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.

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."

Youth crime peaked in 2006, when 25 young people were murdered, making homicide the leading cause of death for Minneapolis residents between the ages of 15 and 24 years old for the third consecutive year. The amount of juveniles arrested or suspected in a violent crime doubled from 2002 that year, according to police statistics, as did the number of firearm-related assaults involving youth 24 and under.

In response to public outcry, Rybak and other city leaders came up with a plan. The police department re-established its juvenile unit, and began cracking down on truancy by showing up at the houses of kids who failed to go to class. The city also created its Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee, which unveiled its "Blueprint for Action" in January 2008.

The blueprint redefined youth violence as a public health epidemic, rather than a public safety problem, and proposed 34 recommendations to combat it, all falling under four categories: connect every youth with a trusted adult; intervene at the first sign that youth are at risk for violence; restore youth who have gone down the wrong path; unlearn the culture of violence in our community.

"I think that the fact that the blueprint itself has 30-some recommendations is an accurate portrayal of how people feel we need to approach this issue, and that is that it's so multifaceted," says Gretchen Musicant, commissioner of the Minneapolis health department. "If only there were one or two things, and if we did them really well, we'd be all done, that would be lovely. But I don't think that's so."

The 59 percent decrease cited by Rybak comes from the number of juveniles arrested or suspected of a violent crime, figures that are reported by the police department. In 2002, the year Rybak took office, police tallied 1,300 arrests and suspects. When youth violence peaked in 2006, this more than doubled to 2,652, and has since been on the decline, dropping back down to 1,091 in 2011.

"There's a lot to feel good about, because we know that some of this work has literally helped keep kids alive," says Rybak, careful to add there is a long road ahead. "We set a goal of zero homicides in Minneapolis intentionally, because we recognized that even if numbers got better, we cannot say it was a success until we literally stopped kids from killing each other."

But other measurements of youth violence in Minneapolis suggest progress is much more incremental. In 2011, a total of 1,483 youths (age 24 and younger) showed up to Minneapolis hospitals after being the victims of assault, according to data tracked by the city. That's only 12 percent fewer than the 2006 peak — and slightly more than the year Rybak took office. Minneapolis also saw 20 young people murdered last year, the highest rate in eight years other than 2006.

Councilman Schiff says that the hospital statistics offer a better read of what's happening in the streets, and that police stats are really a measure of police productivity.

"This doesn't mean [aggravated] assaults went down," says Schiff of the police data. "In fact, when you look at the data from a third party we collect, you see youth are still getting the crap beaten out of them."

Schiff also criticizes Rybak for taking credit for the post-2006 decline, even though the problem spiked after he took office.

"On his watch it also went up," says Schiff. "You can't take credit for going down if you only start counting when it was at the worst."

Rybak, who recently ordered an independent review of the city's youth violence effort, is quick to write off Schiff's argument as ammunition for a planned mayoral campaign.

"I believe his interest in this work has been roughly in the same time period he's chosen to run for mayor," Rybak says.

While Schiff is the most critical of Rybak, he's not the only one worried by the disparity between the different sets of data. City Councilman Cam Gordon, who started the Youth Violence Prevention Executive Committee in Minneapolis, also wonders if the problem could be more severe than the police stats alone let on.

"I would be concerned that maybe some of these aren't being reported as crimes," says Gordon. "That could be one of the reasons why we see a decrease — not necessarily because there's fewer of them."


The Center of Disease Control's Massetti says that the most comprehensive snapshot of Minneapolis's progress on youth violence can be seen by looking at all the data.

"It's not that one or the other is necessarily a more reliable method," says Massetti. "They tend to be more complementary, and I think good data systems tend to take multiple perspectives into account. So if police data are telling one story, and hospital data are telling another story, those are complementary stories that are important to take into account."

Jamil Jackson sits on a foldout chair courtside at Gary Wilson Gym in north Minneapolis's Farview Park, calling out orders to a couple dozen kids shooting free throws and running wind sprints.

"Bleachers!" he shouts, and with militant discipline, the kids — two of them his own — begin unfolding a set of bleachers mislaid on the edges of the sweltering gym. "Everybody! Everybody!"

Three years ago, Jackson started a summer basketball league that included members from every clique in north Minneapolis. As a condition to play, each gang member had to agree to an on-court truce.

"We never had a fight," says Jackson. "We never had one argument that resulted in an altercation off the league. We'd even have kids come in and say, 'You're lucky the league's going on.'"

Jackson, who also started the mentorship group Change Equals Opportunity, funded the league entirely out of his own pocket. But after last year, he could no longer afford it. Since he stopped it, three of the kids who once participated have been murdered, and two more have been shot.

"There used to be a street code, know what I mean?" he says. "It was unwritten rules, but it was rules. You didn't have a gun fight when there were kids around. And there's none of that now."

Cliques, which are less formal than gangs, are one of the most pervasive problems facing kids in Minneapolis today. Police started noticing them in the past decade, shortly after federal law enforcement cracked down on national gangs like the Bloods and Crips.

Cliques generally lack the national affiliations and don't have the same drug hookups. That's why they are more often busted for burglaries or robberies, rather than drug trafficking, police say. Members also start much younger than in traditional gangs. They are heavily armed, and don't seem to follow any set of rules — unwritten or not — making it harder to predict when they will pull the trigger.

"I don't know when it's going to end," says Nina, a 17-year-old North Sider. "Once you're in a gang, like, you livin' the life. You have to fight."

Right now in Minneapolis some of the most active cliques are Taliban, DTs, SUB, One-Nine, Four Corner Hustlers, YNT, Scarface, DDs, and the Tre Tres. By now, the clique system is so embedded in youth culture, it's hard to imagine it going away anytime soon, says Jibreel Jackson, a 19-year-old who grew up in north Minneapolis.

"It's about money," he says. "It's about protection. It's about making a name."

A few years ago, Jibreel's brother Mandela started the Taliban out of Patrick Henry High School. Mandela was the school's basketball team captain, and one of the best players in state. Jibreel says his brother and the other players started the gang originally as a means of protection from the other cliques.

"He was in a clique to protect himself," says Jibreel. "Because who else was going to protect him?"

A few weeks ago, Jibreel found Mandela near his sister's house in St. Paul. Mandela had been shot in the head; a gun was lying near his feet. A fellow teammate from Patrick Henry was found a mile away, also dead. Police ruled it a murder-suicide, though Jibreel and his family refuse to believe it.

"I don't know, I believe they killed him," says Jibreel. "They. Whoever they are."

If drugs are less available to the cliques today, the same can't be said for guns, which residents say are more visible and easily accessible than ever. Asked to name the types of weapons he's been seeing on the streets, Sean, a 16-year-old, lists what sounds like an arsenal big enough to arm the rebel militia in Syria.

"I've seen a Deuce Deuce," he says. "A .280, a P95, a 9 millimeter, a 40 Glock, a 35 millimeter, 10 millimeter."

Even Chief Dolan, who argues that youth violence is on a steep decline, concedes that the problem of guns on the streets is out of control.

"One of the things I look at as far as gun availability is the street price of weapons out there," Dolan says. "And the street price of weapons is low."


Where exactly all these guns are coming from is a mystery. A couple of years ago, authorities believed that most of the guns were being funneled in from out of state, says City Councilman Don Samuels. The working theory now is that they are being purchased inside the state. In the past couple of years, the city has started a new push to find the source through forensics and interrogation of shooters. But given how many guns are already on the streets, the effort could be too little, too late, says Samuels.

"To be kind of naively asking questions about guns so many murders later goes to show you how little attention we've paid to this issue," he says. "I mean, we've mapped the human genome. We know a lot about a lot of stuff, and we don't know where the guns come from."

If the first six months are any indication, 2012 will go down as a setback in the fight against youth violence.

At the beginning of the year, police called for an early downtown curfew to battle a string of brutal gang beatings on Nicollet Mall. The beatdowns were seemingly random, and by some estimates involved 20 to 30 young people.

Only hours after Roosevelt High School adjourned on June 1, 16-year-old Trequan Sykes was shot and killed in south Minneapolis by another 16-year-old who had beef with Sykes's brother. Just weeks later, five-year-old Nizzel George was murdered in a hail of gunfire while sleeping on his grandmother's couch; the shooter was 17 years old. In July, two youths — one 17, the other 23 — beat a homeless man to death and robbed him of $5. Later that month, a 24-year-old was found murdered in a house in south Minneapolis.

For the first time since the 2006 spike, police data indicates that Minneapolis is on track to have more youth-related violent crime than the year before. The city is projected to see more juvenile victims than last year, and arrest or suspect more in relation to a violent crime, according to the data. We're also on pace to have more youth — defined as 24 and younger — victims of crimes involving guns.

"I'm a little concerned," Gordon admits. "We're seeing some of the numbers going in the wrong direction. We'll have to see how that plays out."

Police attribute the increase to a summer that started early this year, and don't believe it's the beginning of another upward spike. But for residents like Catrice Champion, it seems like more of the same. So far this year, Champion's godson and two of her 16-year-old son's friends have been killed.

"You tell the mayor and them that it's not getting better," says Champion. "We are dying out here. We're dying." 

The fuzzy math behind Minneapolis's war on youth violence

^ Click to enlarge

In City Hall, there is much debate over the progress made in the effort to curb youth violence. Mayor R.T. Rybak claims we've reduced the problem by 59 percent, based on data reported by the police. But City Councilman Gary Schiff believes data collected from hospitals suggests the situation is still much more grim.

Schiff argues that the hospital numbers (pink line) are a better indicator of what's happening on the streets, and that they actually show an increase in youth violence from 2002, the year Rybak took office. Rybak celebrates a steep, five-year decline, based on the police data (gray line).

Mark N. Kartarik

VJ Smith knows what it's like to be stuck on the wrong path. As a kid, Smith ran away from foster care and spent the first part of his life on the streets, selling drugs to get by. Now he tries to help troubled youth like his former self. Smith is the president of MAD DADs, a street-level advocacy group made up mostly of reformed criminals. A police chaplin, Smith is often among the first responders to a homicide scene, counseling families and working crowd control. His organization deals with kids all over the city, including in jails. Smith hasn't noticed much change on the streets over the past five years, he says, but he doesn't believe the situation is hopeless. "There is a solution," says Smith, "and we'll do it every day."

Catrice Champion's son Chuckie was found murdered in a north Minneapolis crack house in 2007
Mark N. Kartarik

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