Somali elder patrols have proven to be a valuable tool in combating violence

July 4, 2022, was a night many in Minneapolis will never forget. Rampant violence occurred throughout downtown, much of it focused on the Mill District, which includes the Stone Arch Bridge area. Multiple people were shot at Boom Island, and the police struggled to restore order. It was clear to the police and residents that much of the violence and chaos had been carried out by Somali youths.

“The kind of violence, the recklessness and in some cases, idiotic behavior that we saw shouldn’t be tolerated, and let me be clear, it won’t be tolerated.”

 Mayor Jacob Frey

City Councilman Michael Rainville, who represents the 3rd Ward, which includes the Mill District and the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood near Dinkytown, spoke out at a community meeting and said he would be speaking to Somali elders about the need to get control of the Somali youths involved in the mayhem.

That comment angered some Somali leaders, but over time Rainville has proven himself to the Somali leaders to be a straight-talker who has everyone’s interest at heart. The trust that has been built proved to be valuable in 2023 when Somali youth problems reappeared.

During the early summer months of 2023, Somali youths again began congregating on and around the Stone Arch Bridge and in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota. Multiple high-profile incidents were reported involving dozens of Somali youths attacking pedestrians and shooting fireworks at pedestrians, residences, cars, and even the police.

July 4, 2023, was a repeat of 2022 with multiple unprovoked attacks on citizens and police.

Somali community elders recognized the need to address the problem and ensure the Somali reputation was not further damaged. One of the first calls Somali leaders made was to Councilman Rainville. Together they decided to try interrupting the violence using a culturally specific solution — having Somali women and elders patrol the areas on foot.

Rainville worked with the police department to get guidance on areas to patrol, then with the Downtown Improvement District (DID) who had experience utilizing various violence interrupters. The DID put Rainville in touch with the Somali Youth Link, an organization in the Cedar Riverside area that was willing to partner with the city to provide foot patrols.  Rainville then worked within the city to re-allocate funds dedicated to violence interruption, securing some $50,000 to run the patrols through early November.

The first patrol began on the Stone Arch Bridge in early September. The patrol consisted of 7 Somali woman and one Somali male. They dressed in distinctive light blue shirts with a bright yellow lion emblazoned on the front. The patrol actively approached groups of Somali youth and engaged them in conversation about their actions. They learned that many of the Somali youth lived outside Minneapolis and were using the Stone Arch Bridge area as a meeting place, all coordinated through social media.

The Somali women, known in the Somali communities as “Aunties,” were direct and asked each of the youths, “Does your mother know where you are?” That approach had the surprising effect of driving the youth from the area.

The patrols were quickly expanded to the Dinkytown area, with both areas receiving attention on Friday and Saturday nights after dark. The Somali American Police Association worked with the MPD to ensure a Somali officer was always scheduled to be on duty during the patrols as a liaison for the civilian Somali patrols.

In an amazing turn of events, the culturally specific patrols have virtually eliminated Somali youths from gathering or creating problems in either area. KSTP reported at the end of September that there had been four straight weekends with no issues reported.

According to Councilman Rainville, that streak has continued through the first two weekends in October. Fortunately, the patrols have not just pushed the problem somewhere else — the problem has just disappeared, at least for now.

The patrols will continue into November before laying off during the winter months.  Rainville intends to obtain funding for 2024 to ensure there is no repeat of the mayhem seen in 2022 and 2023.

The patrols represent successful public policy which redirected funding toward a specific problem, and worked with the Somali community to find a culturally specific solution that benefited the whole community.