Safety walk: One step for Cedar Riverside


Seven people meet by the entrance of the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood Tuesday.

As they cross the street in the approaching dusk, the red sign for Mixed Blood Theatre, a former firehouse, reflects off their bright yellow vests and the two plastic bags they carry — one for garbage and one for recyclables.

Of the seven participants in the “safety walk,” at least four have connections to the University or Augsburg College, either as teachers or students.

MN DAILY EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series examining violence in the Somali community.

No Somalis are with them tonight. It’s the festival of Eid al-Fitr, the day Muslims break the fast after the long month of Ramadan.

Even the safety walk’s coordinator from the West Bank Community Coalition, who is Somali, has taken the evening off after a long day of meetings at the Brian Coyle Center, most of which revolved around recent violence in the neighborhood, including the killing of a Somali, who was an Augsburg student, outside the center.

The group passes a squat green building in the parking lot of Riverside Plaza apartment towers. A group of Somali boys and elders are standing out front. No one says anything.

“Someone was shot there Saturday,” Russom Solomon, the owner of the Red Sea Bar, later said. “He was injured in the leg.”

They turn right on Cedar Avenue.

A group of elderly men and women cluster in the doorway of Otanga Grocery; a teenage boy is with them.

“Good job! Good job!” the boy says as the walkers snatch up pieces of trash from the gutters and sidewalks.

The safety walk has taken place twice a week since June; they also clean up graffiti, and if they see people fighting, they’ll call police.

At the freeway, the group doubles back across the street to and passes a woman panhandling on a patch of ground that glistens with old broken bottles.

On the sidewalk outside the Mediterranean Deli, a Somali teenager gets into a conversation with one of the walkers, and a couple others stop to wait for her.

His friend is wobbling tipsily and eyeing safety walker and bar owner Solomon.

“Why is you mad at me?” the young man says repeatedly, getting in Solomon’s face.

“I know you,” Solomon says.

The teenager calms down, and reaches to hug Solomon as a gesture of momentary friendship.

A few seconds after the confrontation, a Somali elder walking with a cane recognizes Solomon. They greet one another and the man embraces Solomon.

“I know them,” Solomon says.

The safety walks are a visible way for the group to maintain positive relationships with good people in Cedar-Riverside’s insular Somali community, while keeping an eye on those who panhandle and do drugs.

“We know the guys who cause trouble here,” Solomon said. “When they see us coming, they know that.”

To the walkers, it’s a straightforward way to supplement other positive changes in the neighborhood, like increased police presence.

“[Cedar-Riverside] is getting a bad reputation,” he said. “This is what we need in this neighborhood.”

‘Homicides are just absolutely unacceptable’

For Minneapolis police in the First Precinct, lacking communication between police and the community, an influx of Somali gangs and outsiders descending on Cedar-Riverside to commit crimes have combined to hinder policing in the area.

Additionally, decreases in other crimes are cheapened by an increase in murders, First Precinct Commander Insp. Janeé Harteau said.

Crime in the area has ebbed and flowed, she said, and Cedar-Riverside was fairly quiet until Ahmednur Ali’s murder two weeks ago outside the Brian Coyle Center.

“You can’t relish in the things that have been accomplished because the homicides, they basically override the work that’s been done,” she said. “The homicides are just absolutely unacceptable.”

Moving forward, Harteau aims to have a “working group” of Somali and city leaders and business owners to discuss short- and long-term community safety strategies.

Part of that group’s responsibility would be to link the Somali community and police during tumultuous times, like at the scene of a murder.

Police protocol sometimes contradicts Somali-held beliefs and standards, such as covering a body at a murder scene, which police say could destroy forensic evidence.

With the working group, there would be people standing by to communicate what’s happening and why, and foster understanding between the two groups.

Harteau also hopes to create a Somali liaison officer position in the Minneapolis Police Department, who would maintain crime information and help bridge the gap between Somalis and law enforcement.

It’s important that “the Somali community has at least one person they can connect with,” she said. The officer would also work in other parts of the city, specifically in the Third and Fifth precincts, which have heavy Somali concentrations.

In Cedar-Riverside, police cameras installed in high-crime areas, concentrated near Fourth and Sixth streets south and 15th Avenue South over to Cedar Avenue South, have been effective, Harteau said.

“We put the cameras in where the highest crime has been,” she said. “That initially helped deter crime; now it has captured crime.”

Riverside Plaza owners Sherman Associates have also volunteered to donate $20,000 to hire extra police in the neighborhood, according to community activists.

First Precinct officers touch base with those private security forces to trade safety information.

Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon , whose ward represents the area, said he’s trying to expand to Cedar-Riverside a Minneapolis youth violence prevention program lauded by Mayor R.T. Rybak for decreasing youth crime in other parts of the city.

“I’m actually pushing right now to look at how we define the targeted neighborhoods,” Gordon said. “In this last incident the victim was 20 and the subject was 16 … It is a public health crisis.”

‘There’s more good than there is bad’

After Ali, the Somali Augsburg student, was gunned down outside, the Brian Coyle Center stepped up its own security efforts.

The center already had plans to install cameras outside the building, center director Jennifer Blevins said, but Ali’s death spurred a more comprehensive proposal that would extend surveillance to the parking lot.

“In general, those of us who are in the neighborhood have been concerned about what seems to be a growing level of violence,” she said.

But police and community members have expressed concern about the center’s role in the neighborhood’s problems, especially gang-related ones.

“It became a magnet for the gangs,” Somali Justice Advocacy Center director Omar Jamal said, citing a tendency for delinquents to meet there and organize themselves.

Harteau agreed, but called the center a place with “great potential.”

“There’s more good than there is bad [there],” she said, but still, the center’s positive parts could be threatened by criminal activity.

As a result of shootings near the center, like Ali’s and other nonlethal ones, Harteau said the center now seems to be more open to police training for its staff on what suspicious activities to look for, how situations can escalate and when to call police.

A plan for on-site security at the center now includes an officer presence both inside and at an adjacent park during open hours, Blevins said. When neither police nor park police can be there, private security firms will make up the difference.

Solomon, who walks the streets of Cedar-Riverside twice a week as part of the safety patrol, said many changes are happening in the neighborhood, but that he most appreciated the twice-weekly walks.

“It has a subtle effect, maybe good,” Solomon said. “[The criminals win] if you stop living and stop interacting with people.”

As for Harteau and law enforcement, “It isn’t until the violent crime and the crime overall decreases that I’ll be satisfied,” she said. “Not until then.”