Minn. police work to stem gang bloodshed
By gathering gang intelligence from wiretaps, social media postings and informants, Minneapolis police are working to stop gang violence
By Libor Jany
MINNEAPOLIS — On paper, it had all the makings of a revenge shooting.
Minneapolis police detectives figured that the perpetrator crept up to the dining room window under the cover of darkness one night last week, and squeezed off a trio of shots from a semiautomatic handgun. All three bullets found their intended target, a man in a wheelchair who police say was hit in the torso, wrist and leg, but is expected to survive.
It wasn't his first brush with death, either — the victim, who was unnamed in a police report, had been shot twice before: once in a 2008 drive-by shooting that left him paralyzed from the waist down, and again earlier this year when gunfire erupted at a large parking lot gathering off W. Broadway Blvd., leaving one man dead and another wounded.
Both incidents are thought to be tied to a furious and complex gang war in parts of the city's North Side that has contributed to the majority of the city's homicides and dozens of shootings, while leaving residents both fearful and jaded by the violence outside their doorsteps.
The 25-year-old New Hope man has the regrettable distinction of being counted twice among the roughly 170 gunshot victims in north Minneapolis — and 245 citywide — through Sept. 5, roughly the same number as were shot across the city during the same period last year. While fewer people have been killed this year than last, police say the drop is as much a testimony to bad marksmanship than anything else.
The latest violence flared over the weekend, when a 21-year-old man was shot in the face after an argument at a house party in the Hawthorne neighborhood that was attended by members of rival gangs, according to police. No one has been arrested in the homicide, the city's 24th of the year.
Last week a shootout between rival groups damaged several cars and sent students and teachers scrambling at nearby Sojourner Truth Academy when a bullet shattered a hallway window.
Police estimate there are about 20 to 25 gangs — with another 20 or more smaller subsets, called "cliques" — in operation across the city, said Officer Corey Schmidt, a police spokesman.
Among the 25 gangs, there are some alliances that allow members to freely associate with one another. The number also includes ethnic and immigrant gangs, along with larger biker gangs.
Schmidt said a majority of this year's homicides are attributed to "some type of a gang relationship or affiliation."
"However, we cannot confirm the exact number until all cases would result in an arrest of a suspect," Schmidt said.
As a result of the escalating gang war, several crews have banded together to form two larger factions, the High End and Low End, their territory roughly divided by West Broadway.
The recent bloodletting bears little resemblance to gang conflicts of the past, authorities say.
In the past, larger, established street gangs like the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, which for all of their violent tendencies, police say, operated under a strict code of conduct for members as they fought over lucrative drug-selling real estate. No longer.
In their place are brash new groups with names like Skitz Squad, Emerson Murder Boyz, Loudpack and T-Blocc, whose members are noticeably younger and quicker to resort to violence, often because of a perceived slight on social media or over an incendiary YouTube video.
Lt. Jeff Rugel, commander of the department's five-man gang squad, said most violence is the work of a small number of teenagers and young men, eager to settle long-standing beefs with rival gang members.
"A guy could've shot someone five years ago, and they went to prison, and now they're out of prison, and they're shot at because the gang doesn't think that justice was served," said Rugel, who also runs the department's intelligence-gathering center.
'A systemic issue'
At daily briefings at the MPD gang unit's north Minneapolis headquarters, screens display feeds from traffic cameras in crime-plagued neighborhoods, while officers pore over the latest gang intelligence gathered from wiretaps, social media postings and informants.
At the first sign of trouble — a shooting the night before, or a threatening Facebook post — officers hit the streets, knocking on doors and speaking with gang members to ward off retaliatory violence. A vigilant eye on social media is key.
"If there's too much back-and-forth chatter, it's an indication of a possible pending shooting," Rugel said.
With so many different crews, their membership and allegiances seemingly changing by the week, it's hard to pin the blame on any one group, Rugel said. But the Tre Tres Crips — who have aligned themselves with other "High-End" gangs like the Taliban, Young 'N Thuggin' and Emerson Murder Boyz — have emerged as one of the area's most ruthless. The Tres, an offshoot of the Shotgun Crips gang, first came to the attention of law enforcement in 2005 for its role in a string of armed robberies throughout Minneapolis and several western suburbs.
But officials say that the community must do its part and provide information about open cases. But in certain neighborhoods, reliable eyewitnesses are hard to come by. When police detectives come calling, people's memories get short and they have a hard time recalling names and faces, out of fear of retaliation or in accordance to the street code that forbids "snitching."
Despite efforts, some community activists say that police have been largely ineffective in quelling the violence in certain neighborhoods because of outdated methods of fighting crime.
Others point out that the answer lies in understanding and then addressing the complex social forces that contribute to crime.
"We have a systemic issue, which is a confluence of a number of things: economic disparities, and some of the groundwork that has to happen in order for young people to feel hopeless enough to go around and shoot each other," said D.A. Bullock, a North Side resident and filmmaker whose work grapples with inner-city issues.
Police in recent years have acknowledged the shortcomings of the traditional approach of "arresting away the problem," and have turned to a more community-policing oriented model, while working more closely with federal agencies like the FBI and ATF.
Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek, whose office runs the county's Violent Offender Task Force, which is frequently involved in apprehending gang members. He said law enforcement agencies are forced to balance their activities between long-term drug and gun dealing, while at the same time addressing day-to-day violence. He, like Bullock, agreed that the problem is larger than making one arrest at a time.
"Crime is cyclical. It has to do with economic disparities. It has to do with the [presence] of criminals when they're in their crime-prone years,"Stanek said, adding that authorities must do more from the ground up to combat the allure of gangs.
"I mean, all young people want to be loved, nurtured, respected," he said.