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Violence prevention pilot program in North Minneapolis won't involve the police

The goal is to deescalate and stop crime before it happens.

A community group, with the help of the City of Minneapolis and a local labor union, is launching a violence-prevention pilot program in North Minneapolis that doesn't involve the police. 

Leaders from the nonprofit Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC), SEIU Local 26 and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Thursday announced the creation of the Community Safety Specialist (CSS) pilot program, which will officially start in June. 

CSS is "public safety reimagined" and is an effort "for the people and by the people" of North Minneapolis, organizers said. It involves putting citizens who are trained to deescalate crime and promote peace throughout the North Side to stop crime before it happens.

"We've got this fully comprehensive effort that centers on aspects of de-escalation, of community orientation and, again, those deep-seated relationships that help us to prevent violence in many cases before it even happens," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said. "Helping us to prevent disputes and be almost an intermediary between some of the difficult aspects that yes we have seen in our communities over this last year."

This is something volunteers with NRRC, which formed more than 40 years ago, have been doing in a few neighborhoods of North Minneapolis for months, and an idea Gayle Smaller of the NRRC approached Frey about more than a year ago. 

Now, with the creation of the CSS pilot program, which is supported by the mayor, City Council members, and the SEIU Local 26 labor union, these community safety specialists will no longer be volunteers — they'll be paid a living wage with benefits. 

This pilot program comes as Minneapolis is grappling with a spike in violent crimes, including recent shootings that killed two children and injured a third, and as city leaders debate how - or if -  to reform the Minneapolis Police Department. 

The program's first priority is to figure out where all the illegal guns are coming from. Smaller said they're working to determine who has them and how they're getting them, and then they plan to engage with the young people who have the guns and get them connected to the proper resources and/or help them find a job. 

How the program works

The CSS program is separate from the police department but will help supplement what the MPD is doing. CSS workers can't investigate crimes on a deep level and can't make arrests, but they can help prevent violence and other things months before they happen, Smaller said.

They can do that because of the "clear separation between us and the police," Smaller added, noting people would shut them out if they found out they were working with police.

"Our ability to establish that separation and bring in real, credible guys from the neighborhood allows those thugs to trust us," Smaller said. "All these people, they trust us because they've seen us here at the corner stores, they've seen us in the neighborhood and the information that they're providing us, we're not using it to get them in trouble. We're using that to save them."

The program wants to help support the police in arresting people in connection to murders and violent crimes because that makes their job easier, Smaller said. When crimes go unsolved, people often retaliate and seek revenge because they're upset the person responsible is still free, walking the streets.

"A lot of us know one murder leads to six," Smaller said, noting they work on building around the first murder by talking to family and those involved to create peace options and prevent a future crime.

Frey said, "This is part of an ecosystem. With other violence prevention and yes, law enforcement. And if we do this right it is supplemental to the work that our police officers are doing on a daily basis."

The success of this program is its organic development from the community, with the blessings of SEIU, the City of Minneapolis and others providing resources to NRRC, Smaller said.

The CSS pilot program is modeled after what the NRRC has been doing for a while using volunteers, but the 20 people lined up to be CSS workers will be paid and trained, like apprentices, to prevent violence.

"It'll be nice to have some young blood that we can train and bring along and show them different aspects that make this successful," Smaller said. 

Frank McCrary of SEIU Local 26 said they've created a new profession that will be treated as a trade, with the CSS workers getting the tools, training, and stability they need to do the work. 

CSS workers will be paid $15,30 an hour to start, then $23 an hour after a year. They'll also get 180 hours of training that includes de-escalation, hands-on tactical, anti-terrorism and mental health first aid, FOX 9 notes

The training they'll get includes mentoring from one of the NRRC leads, Smaller said. NRRC has broken North Minneapolis into 15 districts, each with a lead and CSS workers. The lead will bring the CSS workers around, introducing them to every single resident in the district and the "magic" of what they do. 

Smaller says what makes CSS "magical" is the people and their ability to communicate with each other, noting that's "where a lot of our strength comes from."

The pilot program will cost about $1.6 million, Smaller said, noting they're seeking about $1 million from the City of Minneapolis. The rest is funded through donations from the community and private foundations.

Smaller is hopeful the partnerships NRRC has for this pilot program will help them build a model that's financially sustainable so they can keep CSS workers employed and keep the program going for years to come, including expanding the program to other Minneapolis neighborhoods. 

It could also serve as a model for other cities, Smaller said. 

Mayor Frey said he wants to ensure the program is functional on a daily basis and for the longer haul, so he's planning to bring a recommendation to the City Council to fund the CSS program using some of the $271 million the city got from the federal American Rescue Plan funding. He expects to submit a recommendation to the City Council in the coming weeks.

City Council members Jeremiah Ellison, Steve Fletcher and Lisa Goodman, who have been critical of the mayor and his handling of recent violence and police reform, were in attendance at Thursday's news conference to show their support for the pilot program.

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