How a public-health approach to violence prevention is working in Mpls.

MSR file photo Sasha Cotton during a recent press conference

Heading off trouble before it happens

Created in 2018 by the City of Minneapolis within the Minneapolis Health Department, the Office of Violence Prevention was created to reduce violence in a city already facing police violence and community violence.

The office is tasked with collaborating with community members and City staff to devise new plans for violence prevention. What the Office primarily means by violence prevention is community violence and the different forms it takes, including bullying and violence among peers.

Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention, said over a video call that the Office thinks of itself as an “incubator” for the work they do in partnership with community-based organizations. Cotton said that means they provide training and technical assistance to programs by using evidence-based models.

Staffed by seven people, the Office doesn’t do the work itself but does have staff that is out in the community every day. “A lot of what we do is around building, supporting and funding nonprofits and other organizations who are working on the ground,” Cotton said.

According to their website, the Office uses “a community focused, public health approach to help ensure that everyone can be free from violence.” The community-led work uses a variety of approaches like community building, youth empowerment, community meals and street outreach.

“I think oftentimes when people think about violence and public safety, the real focus is thinking about police response,” Cotton said. According to Cotton, a public health approach is more all-inclusive than just law enforcement. “We’re not in any way designed to replace the police. We’re designed to do the work that happens before someone engages with the police.”

The approach by the Office begins with what Cotton calls “a pyramid of resources.” She said the pyramid has three pillars of resources beginning with “primary prevention” that stops violence before it starts. This begins with getting people’s basic needs met such as safe and stable housing, jobs, access to youth development services and educational resources. “We know those are things that can help prevent people from being involved with violence,” Cotton said.

The second pillar of the pyramid is called “secondary prevention.” Cotton described this as similar to an intervention. She explained that this pillar focuses on addressing people who have needs in communities where there are pre-existing challenges. Their purpose is to figure out how they can help identify at-risk people who get involved with violence.

“We know there are red flags that we can look at and tell us someone might be heading in a direction of trouble when it comes to violence,” Cotton said. The Youth Connection Center is a prized program of the Office. It serves youth ages 10 to 17 who have issues in school or with law enforcement.

The Center is also a 24/7 safe and supervised space for youth who have been picked up for truancy, curfew or low level-offenses in Hennepin County. Cotton said they provide resources to help ensure youth don’t have additional contact with law enforcement.

The top pillar of the pyramid is called “tertiary prevention,” which interrupts the cycle of violence. Cotton said many people don’t think about this as prevention, but when people hurt people, retaliatory violence is a basis for violence to begin. “When we are hurt or victimized, sometimes we feel the need to go back and victimize others.”

Cotton stressed the importance of interrupting that cycle because it’s what often leads to ongoing violence in communities. The Office also tries to replicate practices that have worked in other locales in the U.S. and internationally.

In addition to coordinating violence prevention work across the cities, the Violence Prevention program provides support to existing community programs that address violence through the Violence Prevention Fund. Somali Community Resettlement Services and Northside Residents Redevelopment Council are among the organizations that recently received funding; both were awarded $44,000.

In addition to providing funds, the Office focuses on capacity-building through the Blueprint Approved Institute (BPAI). Through BPAI, the Office supports grassroots community organizations doing violence prevention work and helps them build skills, increase organizational capacity, and put their capacity-building into action.

Cotton feels the funds provided to the Office are well worth the investment. “I think absolutely we feel these are good ways to spend money,” Cotton said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of enforcement.”

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