Minneapolis Focuses on Somali Killings

David Chanen, Star Tribune, November 19, 2008

He doesn’t wear a uniform and carry a gun, but Imam Hassan Mohamud considers himself a peace officer.

Like other Somali activists, the spiritual leader is struggling with the dramatic violent crime increase in his community. Since December, seven Somali men under 30 have been slain in the Twin Cities. The motive in three of the cases may have been retaliation.

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The Somali crime problem has become a high priority for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who said he spent much of Tuesday meeting with top city leaders and community outreach workers to discuss how to apply the city’s youth violence prevention plan to the Somali community. But he doesn’t want the rash of homicides to overshadow the incredible accomplishments Somalis have achieved in Minneapolis.

“Community leaders and police are saying we’ve reached a point where we need to do things right now,” said Police Chief Tim Dolan, who was at the meeting.

Muhidin’s small piece to the solution was to gather five of her Somali friends at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and put together a youth anti-violence conference being held today in St. Paul. {snip}

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Throughout the year, each new homicide triggered a round of community meetings. Last Friday, the Abuubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis hosted a forum that addressed many of the same issues Muhidin raised. Why the violence has escalated this year is unclear.

Isolation a factor

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Hassan, an attorney who is also an immigration law advocate, said he could tick off 15 reasons for the rising violence in the Somali community. A key problem is lack of cultural educational programs for Somali youth. They can feel isolated and might form or join a gang to fulfill their needs, he said. And getting caught doing crime can harm their immigration status, he said. A lack of government funding for immigrant youth programs also is a problem, he said. More money is allocated to how to deal with crime instead of preventing it, he said.

To that end, police departments need to do a better job to learn about Somali culture, and Somalis have to understand police procedure, he said.

The struggles in the Somali community mirror what Hmong immigrants went through when they moved to the Twin Cities in the 1980s, said Minneapolis First Precinct Inspector Janee Harteau, who defended the department’s efforts.

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Last month, a new liaison in the department started to work with the Somali community to funnel information citywide. Police have held monthly meetings with Somali elders, organized crime prevention workshops, placed spots on Somali radio and television stations and recently hired its first Somali officer, she said. The biggest problem is identifying the Somali leadership, so Harteau is trying to gather a core group she can contact during critical incidents.

Most killings unsolved

Police were frustrated by the lack of cooperation during the investigation of the death of Ahmednur Ali, the Augsburg College student who was killed the day he started to work at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. There were many witnesses, but it took time to convince them to come forward, police said. When Abdishakur Hassan was shot to death at a market a week later, people appeared more willing to talk to police.

It appears three of the homicides may have been motivated by retaliation for previous shootings and could be gang-related, police said. Charges have been filed in three of the seven homicides.

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At his mosque in St. Paul, Hassan offers weekend activities that bring in 150 high school and college students. He has devoted most of his life to helping youth become leaders who make positive change because “my faith pushes me to do this.” Hassan and two of his students are planning an anti-violence conference for the Somali community in Columbus, Ohio before their problems grow to the level of Minnesota, he said.

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