Crimes involving young people have been at the center of some recent Southwest Minneapolis discussions following a handful of high-profile incidents, with regional public safety leaders detailing difficult communication and a lack of resources to address the issue.

This comes at a time when violent crime, especially crime involving firearms, is down citywide. Through mid-June, homicides have decreased by nearly 30% compared to last year, gunshot wound victims by 35%, and carjackings by more than 40% from a year ago, according to city data.

The current focus on rising youth-involved crime echoes a trend from the mid 2000s in the city, which was followed by a steep decline in youth-involved crime after the city launched programming to support the young people and combat the issue.

At that time, the city took a public health approach to the issue, housing youth violence prevention in the City’s Health Department. A U.S. Department of Justice report says juvenile-related violent crime citywide declined 37% from 2006 to 2008. More on that program later in the story.

The current wave traces to viral social media videos, inspiring a nationwide wave of thefts of Kias and Hyundais, which have a design flaw that makes them easy to steal. Where the city might typically see 200 Kias or Hyundais stolen in a given year, Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara told a neighborhood group last month that the agency sometimes sees 200 in a week nowadays.

Auto thefts rise, groups involved may be “less than 20 people”

O’Hara said the group of kids involved in the incidents is very small – less than 20 people – and there’s a clear common denominator with the Kias and Hyundais. After MPD arrest the young people who are involved in the incidents, they’re often very quickly sent back to the same environment without any additional support.

Police leadership said the teenagers involved in the auto thefts, typically aged about 14 to 17 but sometimes younger, are traveling in packs of four to 10 people at a time. There’s no common pattern in the geography of time of day that the thefts happen, leadership has said.

The auto thefts themselves are sometimes precursors to other crimes committed once the youths have a stolen vehicle. In multiple instances, they have robbed people of their cell phone and cleared their cell phone apps used to transfer cash. In these incidents, a gun is often displayed or implied. Sometimes they simply steal cars and go for a joy ride.

The auto thefts can lead to dangerous repercussions. In Minneapolis, a 14-year-old girl is in a coma after an accident in a stolen car, an 11-year-old boy was intubated in the hospital after joyriding in a stolen car, and another 14-year-old crashed and died in a stolen car.

It’s predictable,“ so therefore, it should be preventable,” O’Hara said. But there’s a “real problem brewing with these juveniles” joy riding and engaging in increasingly more serious crimes, he said.

The trend of rising auto thefts (stealing an unoccupied vehicle) has happened during a period of time where carjackings (stealing a vehicle by force with an occupant inside) have decreased. In the 5th Precinct, which covers Southwest Minneapolis, there were 33 carjackings from the beginning of the year to June 12, a 56% decrease from last year and a 13% decrease from the three-year average. However, motor vehicle thefts in the precinct have 1,100 occurrences, a 118% increase from last year and 198% over the three-year average.

O’Hara said he doesn’t believe the system (“It’s not really a system, because it's not like this thing works together in some rational, organized way,”) is adequately prepared to address the “explosion” in the car thefts. But he feels “quite strongly” that the police are doing their part.

A lack of resources

The current challenges expressed by public officials are numerous: juvenile data privacy makes it hard for regional systems to share information, resources have suffered since the pandemic, police staffing is still significantly below 2020 levels, and sometimes there’s just not enough evidence to charge a juvenile. Even if police know someone’s name because of repeated contact, they say there’s not a lot they say they can do.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said sometimes cases aren’t submitted to her, while MPD leadership have said there’s often enough probable cause to arrest but not charge.

Moriarty detailed the challenge most clearly at a Tangletown meeting in May: “We do not have appropriate resources for youth,” she said.

She asked how the systems failed the teenager who was in a coma. “Or at least, how can we do better?”

Since then, her office conducted a critical incident aftermath study. She could find information on the juvenile through the child protection division of her office, but not the youth prosecution team. She could see everything that happened in the systems, “but those systems didn’t know what the other systems were doing,” Moriarty said in a phone call.

The kids often touch many of the systems in Hennepin County and become known by law enforcement. The critical incident aftermath study showed Moriarty that early intervention is key.

Through emails, Hennepin County urged Southwest Voices to reach out to the courts. The court system pointed back to Hennepin County. The county never made somebody available for an interview after weeks of correspondence.

Moriarty’s office just rolled out a car theft pilot that allows law enforcement to tell her office about contact with youth even if there’s not a chargeable case. She’s now connected with all the police chiefs in the county along with various Hennepin County youth resources.

O’Hara noted a statutory difficulty that joy riding is not viewed as a very serious crime, even if it’s intuitively clear that the car was stolen because the ignition cylinder is ripped apart.

“These kids are not being held accountable for what is happening,” O’Hara said during the Tangletown meeting.

“This problem is much bigger than a police problem,” Inspector Katie Blackwell, commander of the Fifth Precinct, told a May 11 East Bde Maka Ska neighborhood meeting. She said she’s never seen something like this before.

“The success of the system – and the youth who go through it  … relies on community service providers that meet the needs of youth in developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive ways,” according to an emailed statement from the county. (The same statement was sent to KSTP and can be read in full at the bottom of this article.)

The statement says there is a “noted lack of system capacity” in the state to provide therapeutic and rehabilitative services to youth. The law requires services to be tailor-made rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

The closure of the Hennepin County Home School in early 2022 is just one example of how regional efforts have been hamstrung. It housed youth who were involved in especially egregious crimes, like armed robbery or rape. While Moriarty said it was ineffective, expensive and filled with racial disparities, “it should never have been closed without other resources in place. And I think we're seeing the consequences of that right now.”

Only a few similar facilities still exist, like the Red Wing facility that’s run by the state’s Department of Corrections. Moriarty knows of a juvenile who was sent to a program in Utah. While that young person might do well in a structured environment, “they come back and what's next?”

She said there’s no step down program to help the person reintegrate.

“They come back into their own community and they struggle,” she said. “I think about sending a 12-year-old to Utah – it breaks my heart.”

Mortiarty testified at the Legislature for money to create small group homes with varying levels of security to house youth involved in crimes. “We don’t have those,” Moriarty said.

Ramsey County received $5 million for a similar program, which could create five residential treatment homes for youth with behavioral issues. Hennepin County didn’t. An email to her office about why the funding disparity happened between the two counties was yet to be returned at the time of publication.

The Legislature did allocate $500,000 this session to create a Working Group on Youth Interventions, which will be led by a county representative and someone from the Department of Corrections. It will include law enforcement and community members with lived experiences who are charged with crafting recommendations for regional systems of care for youth. However, a written report from the group won’t be ready until next February.

Moriarty said it’s clear what the county needs, and quickly: a continuum of care that exists within the community that includes services like therapy and trauma care.

The county has helped create specialized courts to address underlying behavior and specific needs that lead to criminal behavior. A spokesperson said the county takes a human services approach to juvenile justice with things like street outreach and youth services such as mentoring and crisis skills.

MPD is trying to target areas where issues with youth-involved crimes have been noticeable, like Dinkytown. It’s a type of “hotspot” policing, where the department sends officers into places where they’ve seen an uptick in criminal activity. Blackwell said at the Tangletown meeting that the department is directing resources where the patterns are – an approach that likely wouldn’t be used in Tangletown itself, as the neighborhood is one of the most low-crime areas in the city.

This approach from the department differs from the 2006 efforts where the city was lauded for its success. Where youth violence prevention work once happened in the Health Department, much of it now lives within the Office of Community Safety, a department led by former police officer Cedric Alexander.

Could previous successes show a way forward?

As current government leaders say there are not enough resources to address the issue, a former city leader points to previous success as a blueprint toward solving the crisis.

Gretchen Musicant was the Minneapolis Commissioner of Health for nearly 20 years, overseeing the agency during crises like the I-35W bridge collapse and the early days of the pandemic. She was reappointed time and time again through three mayors and she said the city has solved crime crises before.

“In 2006, there was a spike in violence. It wasn’t unique to Minneapolis, it was happening across the country,” she said.

She wrote about the experience in a 2022 article for Advocates for Better Health. “It was clear to leaders in Minneapolis that while the police were an important element of a public safety strategy, they were insufficient to address all the underlying issues that contribute to violence,” she wrote.

The health department assembled an advisory group of cultural leaders that worked with youth to identify gaps for resources and services, which recommended the City Council view youth violence as a public health issue.

They looked at risk factors – upbringing in dangerous neighborhoods, poor academic performance, unstable family situations – and laid out recommendations for what to do.

The blueprint had four goals.

  • Ensure that every young person is supported by at least one trusted adult.
  • Intervene at the first sign that youth or families are at risk for or involved in violence.
  • Do not give up on our kids, work to restore them and get them back on track.
  • Recognize that violence is learned and can be unlearned by reducing the impact of violent messages in culture, media and entertainment.

They launched the Step-Up summer jobs program. They worked with Emerge to create North 4, a program tailor-made for kids with more risk factors, which mostly acted as a jobs program for older teens and adults in their early 20s that were affiliated with gangs. They had 24/7 coaches and mentors.

They judged the success not just on whether the young people got jobs, but whether they were alive or engaged in violence.

“There are a precious few individuals in our community who have, over time, done this kind of mentoring work,” Musicant said. “To employ them and recognize their unique niche that few others can fill was a gift.”

From 2006 to 2008, the city saw a 37% drop in youth-involved crime. The DOJ report said that four of five targeted, high-violence Minneapolis neighborhoods had even steeper crime drops – violent crime in the Folwell, McKinley, Hawthorne and Jordan neighborhoods declined 43% during that time.

Not only did youth-involved crimes decrease – the incarceration rate within the population did, as well. The average population in youth detention during that time frame decreased from 100 to 58.

“Virtually everyone interviewed for this report praised the coordination among agencies, jurisdictions, and disciplines that has resulted from the Blueprint initiative,” the report reads. “The city and the county are talking more and sharing resources instead of competing for the same dollars.”

The approach was so successful that the City showed the model to other cities and towns across the country.

Musicant said a variety of resources have suffered since those efforts and especially since COVID. She specifically cited parks funding, the library system, community education, and nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club.

“Our systems are more fragile than they used to be,” Musicant said.

She takes accountability in a different direction than the typical law enforcement approach. She concedes that it sounds “soft,” but she said that diversion programs for low-level offenders have proven effective. The juveniles would meet with community members and hear about the impact of what they did. They build relationships. “But the demand for [those programs] is way higher than they are resourced,” she said.

Musicant said youth have greater capacity to change behaviors in the right setting. “Young people need very basic youth development,” she said.

After the publicized Tangletown incidents, the city distributed a document to those that attended the neighborhood meeting. Under a question titled “What are the City of Minneapolis’s Efforts to Address Youth Crime?”, the answer began with the following: “MPD has deployed Guardian Beats within each precinct. They conduct directed patrols in our hot spots where we are seeing a pattern of crime.” This approach contrasts drastically from the one heralded by Musicant and the DOJ from the mid 2000s.

“What keeps you from committing a crime? Rarely is that because there’s a punishment…We need to understand what it is that actually makes a little brain work. Is it only consequences?” Musicant said. “Or is it making young people feel like they can contribute to their community, and have a sense of mastery, and to have a relationship with a trusted adult. If the only way for people to show their leadership traits is through a criminal enterprise, that’s what we’re going to see.”