West Bank searches for safety solutions

Cedar-Riverside stakeholders commit action — and funding — to quell violence

*Correction: The print version of this story stated that, as of press time in late October, the University of Minnesota had not committed to joining the Cedar-Riverside Partnership, which is outlined in the following story. That information was based on comments by other members of the partnership; however, University of Minnesota Community Relations Director Jan Morlock confirmed soon after that the university will indeed join the partnership.

In the weeks since Augsburg student Ahmednur Ali was shot and killed just feet from Currie Park and the Brian Coyle Community Center, area residents, community organizations and institutions, and police have stepped up efforts on a number of fronts to improve public safety and community relations in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

The complicated issues being hashed out are of particular concern to the city’s Somali community, which has suffered three killings and even more shootings this year. Ali was the second young Somali man gunned down in the Cedar-Riverside area over the past six months.

Ali was killed Sept. 22, after finishing up his first day at a work-study job at the Coyle Center. Four days later, police arrested 16-year-old Ramadan Abdi Sheikhosman, a resident of Riverside Plaza. According to a juvenile court petition, Ali had argued with Sheikhosman earlier in the day and again as he left the center, just after 5 p.m.

Sheikhosman allegedly struck Ali in the head with a handgun and then shot him in the head and fled. Sheikhosman has been charged with second-degree murder and will be tried as an adult.

The incident — after which Ali’s body lay in the street uncovered, despite repeated requests from friends and elders — also further tested a problematic relationship between police and the Somali community. After the April killing of Abdullahi Abdi, police and other officials begged the community to come forward with information. Six months later, Abdi’s murder remains unsolved.

In the days and weeks since Ali’s murder, however, the Cedar-Riverside community has come together to improve the situation at the Coyle Center and in the neighborhood at large. Police credited witness and community assistance in the quick arrest of the suspect, and the diverse groups that comprise the West Bank have stepped up their efforts and investments toward public safety.

Immediate action

On Sept. 25, three days after the murder of Ahmednur Ali, a crowd packed the gym at the Coyle Center, representing the diverse cultures, generations and institutions in the neighborhood. For many, it was an all-too-familiar scene of mourning and anger, but it included a call for immediate, specific action from Tony Wagner, president of Pillsbury United Communities, which runs the Coyle Center.

Hussein Samatar, executive director of the African Development Center, gave qualified agreement that more is being done to improve public safety.

“I am seeing some momentum,” he said, “but it’s not enough unless that momentum becomes actionable — some specific programs that are sustained and funded and also accountable to the community.”

A month later, some action has been taken, starting at the park and the Coyle Center. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has trimmed back bushes and brush that obscure sightlines in the park and in front of the Coyle Center, where cameras were added.

Minneapolis, Park and U of M police stepped up patrols in the area, and First Precinct Inspector Janee Harteau committed two night beat cops to the area, seven days a week.

The addition of the beat cops was welcomed by Rosemary Knutson, long active with the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC), Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program (CR-NRP) and West Bank safety committee. “I’ve been beating that drum since 2002,” said Knutson.

In addition, George Sherman, president of Sherman Associates (an owner of Riverside Plaza) has given $20,000 in seed money for a “buyback” program that would hire off-duty police officers dedicated to specific areas. Russom Solomon, chair of the West Bank safety committee, estimated that at $40 an hour, the $20,000 would buy about 500 hours of police time. Solomon said the hope was for a pool of regular officers who would know the area and the people there.

Other actions called for at the Sept. 25 meeting have yet to be fulfilled, including the hiring of two Somali outreach workers focused on connecting with Somali young adults and the onsite presence of a security officer or police liaison from 5–10 p.m. nightly at the Coyle Center. “We would much rather prefer to have competent youth workers than visible security,” Wagner told The Bridge in October. At another meeting at the Coyle Center later in September, however, attendees voiced their desire for actual security or a police presence in the building.

‘The right fit’

First Precinct Commander Harteau echoed this point in her commitment to adding night beat cops. “We are in the process of identifying officers who would be the ‘right fit,’” she wrote in an Oct. 1 email to West Bank institutional stakeholders.

The need is underscored by a long-standing disconnect between the police and the Somali community.

In an interview with The Bridge at the Coyle Center, Youth Coordinator Tally Washington talked about the importance of the quality, not just quantity, of police presence. The 28-year-old coordinates the athletic programs and FANS program, which offers youth up to $10,000 in scholarships for higher education.

With seven years under his belt at the Coyle Center, Washington knows the kids there, and he has seen examples of good and bad policing.

“The exact same police car just drove by three or four times,” said Washington, looking out the window from the Coyle Center’s community room. “That’s intimidating to the kids,” he said. Asked if that isn’t what the community has called for — increased police presence — he said, “Yes, but not in that way.

“Park your car, get out of your car, come in and talk to these individuals,” said Washington. “If you’re going to be around here every Friday, at least get to know who these kids are. That is engaging to me.”

Leveraging institutions

West Bank stakeholders have convened a new organization, called the Cedar-Riverside Partnership, the goal of which is to foster collaboration among existing organizations.

The partnership is chaired by Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow. The original feasibility study was funded by the West Bank Community Coalition with $10,000 of NRP funds, and Augsburg, Fairview, the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County have all since contributed $10,000 each to the collaborative. Pillsbury United Communities, the West Bank Business Association and the African Development Center are also partners.

Though it will be up to the partners to decide on specific actions, partnership consultant Louis Smith gave examples of how similar partnerships — he has facilitated efforts in Philips and Midtown — have leveraged their collective resources to make sweeping improvements in a community. Parking, job training, housing, capital infrastructure and the future LRT Central Corridor are all areas where neighborhood-wide collaboration could take place.

“I have worked with similar groups in other settings that have mobilized millions of dollars in investments that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Pribbenow pointed out that one of the partnership’s goals is to highlight existing cooperation in the neighborhood, including collaborations that some might not be aware of, like Augsburg scholarships — made available through local schools, these awards have helped many local Somali youth attend the college — and the many student volunteers from Augsburg and the University of Minnesota who work at places like the Coyle Center.

“We have dozens of students everyday at Brian Coyle Community Center, Trinity [Lutheran Church], St. Martin’s Table, at mosques with religion courses, Mixed Blood,” said Pribbenow.

Several people interviewed for this story said that while the killing of one of those students is frightening, it has strengthened the resolve of other volunteers to continue their work. Washington said that the majority of interns have stayed on at Coyle. “They said, ‘I’m not going to let it scare me off; that’s the whole point of working in a neighborhood like this,’” said Washington.

At the same time, he has seen a drop-off in the number of kids at the center after this summer’s shootings, particularly the non-fatal shooting near the park. “There were so many kids that were shaken up, and I haven’t seen some of the kids from that day,” he said.

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon said the safety situation is a “wake up call for the neighborhood.

“We want people to come and use the programs and services at the Coyle Center, just like we want them feel good about using the housing nearby, or going to the businesses nearby, or coming to the Cedar Cultural Center or Mixed Blood or Bedlam [Theatre],” he said.

“Absolutely this creates a problem, and that’s one of the reasons we have to work harder and make sure we prevent it in the future, but also to make sure we keep taking advantage of great stuff that’s there,” he said.

At Currie Park, Amina A. (who declined to give her last name), a resident of Riverside Plaza who frequents the park with her two young children, expressed the lingering fear that many in the neighborhood are feeling and that neighborhood stakeholders are working hard to stem. This past June, as her children played in the park, gunshots rang out, and the family, along with the rest of the people in the park, fled for safety. “It wasn’t safe that time,” she said, “I waited a month to come back.”

If the situation doesn’t improve, she said, she’ll have to leave for a safer neighborhood once her year lease is up.

Bridge publisher Becky Clawson contributed writing and editing to this story.

last revised: November 12, 2008