Part 1: A Public Health Approach to Violence

Listen: Sasha Cotton, Director of Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention talks about a public health approach to violence prevention
Photo Prevention Institute

On June 26, the Minneapolis City Council voted to advance a proposed ballot measure that would ask Minneapolis voters to amend the City Charter to create a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. In addition to creating the new department, the proposed measure would remove the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) as a charter department. 

The Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention would have responsibility for “public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.” The appointed director would have non-law enforcement experience in community safety, such as public health and restorative justice approaches. Under the ordinance, the City may maintain a division of law enforcement services composed of licensed peace officers, supervised by the new department.

To understand Minneapolis’ history of violence prevention approaches, Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Sasha Cotton, director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), an incubator of city-sponsored strategies to improve community safety outside of MPD. Although the name is similar to what is being proposed in the amendment proposal to the city charter, it is a different office already in operation.

Created in 2019, the OVP evolved out of the 2019 city budget proposal when community advocates urged the council and mayor to allocate funds towards developing the office. According to Cotton, it is part of Minneapolis’ long and innovative history with violence prevention measures.

Cotton has an academic background in Criminal Justice and Ethnic Studies and is a certified restorative justice counselor. She began her career working in corrections and left to do community-oriented public safety work. She spent a significant amount of time in the Minnesota State Coalition on Domestic Violence where she focused on prevention policy and programming across the state. In 2014, she accepted a role with the City of Minneapolis as a Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator where she built a number of programs and policy initiatives. Ultimately, that work lead to the creation of the Office of Violence Prevention. 

“Our work grew and the city began to recognize the value of having a robust approach to violence prevention that was public health-led and focused on vulnerable populations,” Cotton explains. 

 The OVP now has 12 programs ranging in focus on investing in vulnerable young people through mentorship and outreach, to tertiary prevention programs, which work with populations where violence is ongoing. People in the program have experienced violence and want to mitigate the damages and reduce the likelihood of perpetuated harm.

We spoke with Cotton about how prevention strategies in Minneapolis have been evolving and what a public health-oriented approach to violence entails.

Click the audio player above to hear a recording, or read the transcript below. More from this interview will become part of our ongoing “Transforming Justice” series of stories.

Sasha Cotton: Minneapolis has a long and pretty innovative history around looking at violence as a public health crisis, particularly youth violence. In 2006, during an era when we were seeing a significant number of juvenile homicides across the country, then-mayor R.T. Rybak was having conversations with other mayors and police chiefs across the country. Everyone was [asking] ‘what can we do to address this?’

He came up with this strategy to develop a prevention plan that looked at some focus goal areas around keeping young people safe [such as] providing violence-free social environments for young people, and connecting them with caring adults, and addressing issues around re-entry. If they are coming home from an out-of-home placement, or they have been in foster care and are coming back to their home community, how do we really insulate them from the challenges they might experience that could lead to violence?

The initial Blueprint [Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence] goes through a series of goals. In 2012, the Blueprint was updated to be a bit more comprehensive. It lays out in a more explicit way what the public health approach tries to do.

In public health, we think about violence as we would any other outbreak or communicable disease, so we understand that it spreads by contagion.

Exposure is the number one way that people are contracting any communicable disease. Just like with COVID, we know that if you are around someone who is sick — even if they don’t seem sick — that is how you get sick.

How do we identify the risk factors? What does it look like for somebody to be possibly spreading the virus of violence? What are the ways you can protect yourself and your community from it?

We look at risk and protective factors for a variety of things and we definitely look at them for violence.

Growing up in a home where violence is prevalent makes you more vulnerable to becoming violent yourself, or accepting violence as a norm. Exposure is really important. But there is also educational outcome and attachment to education, mental health issues, poverty —all play a key role in how a person can become more vulnerable or susceptible to the impacts of violence.

Much like a communicable disease, we want to think about treatment and prevention. How do we work with families to ensure that children aren’t exposed to domestic violence? How do we work with schools to make sure that students who are more vulnerable are getting the additional resources they need to be successful? How do we plan for summer jobs and engagement for teenagers so that they don’t have idle time that can lead to distractions? All of those things are critical to the public health approach.

Photo courtesy Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention

We look at our work in three tiers that we call the Prevention Pyramid.

At the base of the pyramid is healthy, happy, hopeful communities. If people have the basic things that they need — good schools, good home, solid and well-established families — that is our first priority and will reach the largest swath of people.

The second tier is what we call Secondary Prevention, and that is thinking about people who are at increased risk. Communities that have high rates of poverty, families that have experienced domestic violence, young people who have had a parent who has been incarcerated, communities where gang violence is common. We know that those are all things that make people vulnerable and so we want to dig in and do prevention work and intervention work with people in those communities as quickly as we can. We know that addressing a problem early is critical.

It’s sort of like [a medication for flu] — if you can get to your doctor and you have the flu in the first two days, they can give you [the medicine] and you never get the really bad symptoms. If you wait you can become very ill. … Early intervention is really important.

At the tip of the pyramid is what we call tertiary. That is thinking about the repeat cycle of violence. People who have already experienced violence themselves, we know that population is more inclined to use violence to solve their problems. We also know that they are more vulnerable to all of the things that come from the trauma of being in the cycle of violence.

[They are] more inclined to have underlying mental health issues, more inclined to use substances because they are trying to suppress the feelings, more inclined to use violence. So [this is] really a small percentage of the population who has the highest needs related to violence prevention. That requires looking at the problem uniquely and trying to prevent future events of violence and also address the outcomes of violence they have already experienced. 

We will offer more from this interview in the coming weeks.

Related Resources

Part 2 of Sasha Cotton’s interview, on intervention and prevention strategies

Prevention Institute, video interview with Sasha Cotton

Minneapolis Youth Violence Prevention program

MinnPost article on program successes

Ordinance to create a Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention

Minnesota Women’s Press 2019 editor’s letter about police reform efforts suggested by

Action = Change

The proposed City Council measure has been referred to Minneapolis Charter Commission for additional review set for Wednesday, July 1 at 4pm.

The deadline for submitting questions related to the November 3 general election ballot is Friday, August 21. If approved by voters, the changes would become effective May 1, 2021.

Members of the public interested in commenting on the proposed charter amendment can submit comments here.