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More, Different, and Better

A Conversation with Sasha Cotton

Sasha Cotton has spent the last three years leading Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention. In July, she will start a new role as the deputy director for the National Network for Safe Communities with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Chanda connected with Sasha to talk about the highs and lows of her career, evidence-based violence prevention strategies, and the community-centered approach needed in all areas of public safety.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:01

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda — a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:13

Good morning, Sasha Cotton. So pleased to have you on Conversations with Chanda, I’ve been thinking about having you on here for quite a long time. And with your recent announcement, it just felt very timely. So thank you for being here.

Sasha Cotton  00:25

Good morning. And thank you for the invitation, Chanda, it’s great to be with you.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:28

So before we jump into the announcement that people may or may not know, as they’re listening, I just want to give them a sense of who you are. You are the first director of the Office of Violence Prevention. And I’m very curious on sort of your route to that role, and why that was attractive, like what led you there to do that work to begin with?

Sasha Cotton  00:51

Yeah, I mean, I always tell folks that violence prevention is not an industry that people intentionally go into just yet, right? There’s no Bachelors of Violence Prevention out there. So I think most of us who are doing this work, find ourselves here, through intersections, right? Through work in trying to reform criminal justice systems, through failed attempts at law school, or law enforcement or social services, really recognizing that our country is at an interesting place. And we have a new opportunity to do work differently. Thinking about my own personal history. I’m a Twin Cities kid, I grew up in the Rondo community, really proud to be a descendant of that community that is all about uplifting and ensuring that Black folks and underserved communities are recognized. And so I think that has fueled my journey for sure. I thought growing up that I would be an attorney. My uncle was a local attorney in Minneapolis — a Northsider. And I anticipated following in his footsteps. But I finished my undergraduate degree with a double major in criminal justice and ethnic studies, started at Hamline Law School and realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t my trajectory. So I spent some time working in probation, both in Hennepin and Ramsey County, worked in corrections at Redwing… Got a chance to see what it’s like to truly be behind bars, and then spent a good chunk of time working on the intersections of domestic and community violence with the State Coalition on domestic violence. And so really a mix of work, indirect service, technical assistance, and really looking at how violence shows up in underserved communities across the board, led me to the city and to really focus on violence prevention, and to become the first director of the office.

Chanda Smith Baker  02:29

And I know that over this time… So one, it’s not easy to start something, right? Just being an entrepreneur is not easy by itself.

Sasha Cotton  02:41

It’s not easy.

Chanda Smith Baker  02:43

Right? But to be enterprising inside of a system that often is slow to innovate, that has a lot of bureaucracy that has sort of practices of the past, like the evolution so right? So it was innovative just to start the office. And so that office sort of came out of city council, like where did the office, how did they… how did they get established?

Sasha Cotton 03:08

Yeah, so, you know, Minneapolis had been thinking about violence prevention, particularly around youth, as a public health issue for quite some time. So under the blueprint, you know, former mayor, R.T. Rybak, now at the head of Minneapolis Foundation, really had a vision around addressing youth violence and wanting to bring systems partners and community together. And so we had a head start for sure. I started with the city in 2014, literally on the first day of Mayor Hodges mayoralship, and you know, she was very supportive of the work. But at that time, we were a part of a division within the health department… really nuancing our focus on youth violence and trying to address it through systems change. I think I just talked to someone and said, you know, it was me and Josh Peterson and like, $100,000 right? So it was very small work really more focused on systems integration and policy, and sort of relationship development. What we saw in that year, and the years that followed was reductions in youth violence, particularly gun violence, but real increases in violence, and particularly shootings and homicides, among 18 to 24 year olds. And so Mayor Hodges, along with our staff, and other city council members, really felt like it was important to take a look at that issue. And what we could do to wrap our arms around that slightly older demographic, but still young people. I mean, these were not 35 year olds. And so out of that initial kind of grounding, the hospital-based work that we’re doing now, next up, was formed the city have been thinking about that work for some time, I pursued a federal grant to do the group violence intervention. And then the rest of the work kind of blossomed from there. And I think in 2018, we had a council, particularly Councilmember Cunningham that were really interested in taking this work to the next level and from that they developed the office.

Chanda Smith Baker  03:13

You know, I’ve had the opportunity to sort of ride from the outside the wave that you just described from the Youth Violence Prevention blueprint to sort of the emergence of the office, to watching sort of the defund announcement from the park, to then all this sudden that office that was embedded in this obscure sort of way of like, what is it, you know? Sort of getting launched to like, now you’re just completely prime time, like, overnight and fast, it happens super fast. And I was, you know, on the outside, I was so worried for you just in terms of the pressure and how we can be in community where we want immediate results and answers, because we understand the level of trauma that we’re living in, and violence that is occurring, and I understand that emotion. It’s just not quite how the work happens. And so it’s not right. So can you say a little bit? I know, I did see that your interview that you did on on Channel Five, but what so can you talk a little bit about the highs and the lows?

Sasha Cotton 03:23

Yeah, you know, so I’m a builder by nature, you know? That’s sort of the way that I think about doing work is how can we build things up? How can we take you know, small nuggets and build them into something bigger? And so in my early years at the city, part of that building was building infrastructure and capacities. So one of the first big projects that I did at the city was our blueprint approved institute, which is a training and capacity building or opportunity for small nonprofits or individuals who want to do violence prevention work. And that was really like, you know, the guys from the community, women, grandmas, aunties, who were doing it already, right? They were bringing our kids in those were vulnerable, and feeding them and teaching them and mentoring them. And sometimes it was through sport, sometimes it was through art, but they weren’t getting funded. And they didn’t necessarily have the skills to do it through an evidence-based lens or in a way that we measure. And so the institute was really all about helping them develop those skills. So that’s one of the first projects that I did that I’m super proud of, but it was super small, super under the radar, really targeted. I mean, it really was like me going out to community partners and saying, “Hey, I think the $6,000 micro grant in training can make all the difference, right? That’s how some of the relationships we have now with like Jamil Jackson from CEO, or from Brown from urban conservation, or our GBI partner were developed was through that blueprint Institute. And so, to me, building capacity has been at the core of doing this work, and has been the highest highs, right? Seeing people and organizations grow. In both their understanding of the work, their ability to do it. And their ability to serve, has been some of my highest highs. I think, certainly after the murder of George Floyd, our city changed in sort of a 9-11 way, right? There’s how things were before George Floyd was murdered and how things are after. And I think it’ll take some time for us to fully catch up on how that is going to look. But it’s a reality. And so our office was catapulted into the middle of solutions, right? In our almost still embryonic stage, the office was officially launched in 2019. So we were discussed in the 2020 2018 budget came into fruition and 2019 budget, I was brought on as the director, so a promotionish, you know, there was a national search in 2019. In July, right, so less than a year before COVID, less than a year before George Floyd was murdered. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, we don’t want to we don’t want as much of a police presence, there was a lot of confusion about what defund meant. But it became a center point to talk about these other kinds of solutions to violence, in particular with the optics that we saw. And so I think the lowest lows have honestly been the inability for communities sometimes to give this work, the chance and opportunity and needs to fully be what it has the potential to be. We know that violence prevention is an emerging concept, like anything, it’s going to take time to take hold for people to understand how it works, and for it to be fully ingrained to the system. But it is an opportunity to better serve communities and for cities and communities to work together to have solutions that lead to better outcomes. And I think for me, the deepest frustration and our lowest lows outside of the obvious, you know, the unrest, the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic of personal lows, have been with communities inability to see the full picture and system sometimes and ability to see the full picture.

Chanda Smith Baker  09:42

And how does that manifest itself? Like, I think I know from just knowing, but I think it’s like twofold, right? Like, especially when you get diverse leadership in place that understands community, I think that sometimes there’s an additional pressure when you’re in those seats to have things happen or if they don’t happen quickly enough, they sometimes you can be assessed on not not understanding the issue versus not understanding the context in which you’re working. So I think it does take some challenge to your own leadership on top of just creating room for others to criticize work that actually is really being impactful. Is that sort of the the sense of it?

Sasha Cotton  10:26

Yeah, I think that, you know, so one government has caused harm, and certainly the City of Minneapolis was caused harm. And so I think we have to stand on that truth. Even as people who represent communities who that harm has been inflicted on. When we’re working in partnership and representing that entity, we have to own the fact that people are going to have resentment, frustration and expectations of government, both good and bad expectations. And so I have done my best to own that. I think as people of color, you know, I’m a Black woman, I’m a Latina woman, wanting to represent those intersections, at the best possible way is, is what I bring to the table everyday, right? I wake up every day wanting to represent the communities that I’m from and communities largely that have been underserved by government. But you’re right, there is a different layer of expectation and criticism when you’re from those communities by those communities. And I think to a certain degree, we expect that right? We know that we’re held to a different standard, people expect us to be more deeply present. And some of that is expectation we put on ourselves, right? We show up at all the things I’ve been at more than I probably should have ever been at, or then any director will be expected to be at, and ingrained in community meetings and accessible by phone 24 hours a day. And that’s not sustainable. And so I am strongly encouraging the next director to not follow my wake on those things. But accessibility is really important. And people feeling like they have a person to tap in a city, it opens doors. And so for me, this work has been about creating access. Like I said before, with a blueprint approved Institute, we had folks who would have never been funded by the city, but for the fact that we were building our capacity to do those applications. And to get into the city’s vendor system. In 2021, we funded 85 programs, most of which have been led by people of color, which is remarkable. For a city like Minneapolis. That means that all those people are vendors, registered vendors of the city, not only getting money directly from the LDP right now on last year cycle, but that they can apply for anything that they’re eligible for in the city, and becoming a registered vendor with the city. It’s challenging, you know, it’s not like talking about it. And so even those access points, I think it’s easy for people to, to negate how important those kinds of things are those entry points, and that’s what I’m actually really proud of, and most proud of, is that creating those entry points that won’t get taken away, whether I’m there or not.

Chanda Smith Baker  12:56

And so you OBP is the Office of Violence Prevention, and then you brought up GVI. And so you wrote a grant for that. I know what that is, but can you share what that is?

Sasha Cotton  13:08

Absolutely. And of course, like any government or big corporation, we are full of acronyms. So sorry about that. So GVI stands for the group violence intervention. It’s a national best practice that is focused on bringing communities, social services and law enforcement together to focus on reducing group and gang violence in Minneapolis embarked on that work. With a launch in 2017, and in 2017, 2018, and 2019, we saw really significant reductions in group member involved shootings and homicides. And while we’re always really careful not to take full credit, because there’s lots of different things that could impact something like that, with 50 and 60%. reductions. We do think having a targeted program focused on a population that’s so high risk, did have some significant impacts on making those changes. Now, obviously, in 2020, we saw numbers soar, but we continue to provide those resources. And I think one of the challenging parts about prevention is it’s hard to prove what didn’t happen. And so what we’re able to show is that the people we’re working with the over 400 people that have enrolled in GVI services, we’re not talking about, you know, like, the kid who’s on the margins, we’re talking about people who are deeply involved in group and gang violence, who are shooters who have been incarcerated in the past, who are taking the opportunity to get their lives on a different trajectory. They’re having lower recidivism rates, we’ve lost four now to homicide, four out of over 400 in this population. Any loss of life is is critically hurtful to our community to those families, but four out of 400 with this population is a really small number, because they’re very high risk. They’re 100 times more likely to be victims of homicide than the average citizen, this demographic. And so what we can measure is the impact of the people we’re able to serve. I think the next step for the Office of Violence Prevention is being able to have a service portfolio that’s not limited by a budget that’s so small, so that we can measure more on our population base because we’re able to serve anyone who wants the service. And not just, you know, limited to who we can serve based on a budget.

Chanda Smith Baker  15:22

Let’s talk about some of the numbers. So as of yesterday, at whatever time it was that the news came on at, you know, five o’clock or whatever it was 222 shootings in the city. I think there’s more now there was a homicide that happened last night, and probably other shootings that have that are not included in those numbers. I know that the rise of violent crimes is a national trend. But locally, the number of shootings, the number of carjackings have increased. And so we have a few dynamics. So we have the the police reform, we have the Office of Violence Prevention, we have this rise of crime rate that’s trending in a really negative way across the country. Like what do you think accounts for those trends? And do you think that we have the right strategies in place to counter them

Sasha Cotton  16:16

That’s a loaded question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. So I think, you know, we’re two years out now from the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder. And I think in ways here in Minneapolis, at any given moment, that can feel like a long time, or like it was yesterday. But as I’m talking with folks at the national level, it still feels very recent, I think we are outside of our bubble. And so I think to some degree, that contributes to some of what we’re seeing here locally, some of the tenor and the tense feelings that we get in community. But if we want to get really like, granular and practical, I think that one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years in the Twin Cities in Minneapolis specifically, is the introduction of switches into the community. And so these are accessories that can be added to handguns to make them operate like a semi-automatic weapon. It’s dispersing bullets rapidly, way more firepower than we’ve ever seen in the past. And so and they’re easy to get, right. It’s we’ve known for a long time, particularly in black and brown communities that guns are easy to get. But guns shoot 6, 12, 20 bullets you know, like it’s a limited number. And once you’re out, you gotta reload. And usually that’s that’s a sense of the round. When you’re adding this to it, you’re talking about when you’re adding switches, you’re talking about people being able… I was just in a meeting, where a random bystander are got shot from over a block away, right. So you’re adding capacity, you’re adding value of bullets, right? I think that’s a major factor. I also think that police legitimacy is a major factor in our city. I think with people watching the murder of George Floyd on television, and then having to interact with law enforcement wearing that exact same uniform. There is a credibility issue. And I don’t know that we’ve done the work at the city level yet to even begin to repair the legitimacy of our government in totality, and certainly within the police department and public safety services. And so when there’s a dip in police legitimacy, you can expect that violent crime is going to go up, because people who perpetrate that kind of violence, don’t feel like they’re going to be held accountable. And so I think that’s also a factor that we have to grapple with. I also think that when we talk about prevention, we are doing some things really well. But we are also talking about an ecosystem that has to be built out. And so I have been saying for the last couple of years, we have to be willing to do more, different, and better on all fronts of public safety. And with the level of divisiveness that exists. I think the defunded message really led to this adversarial nature that’s fostered between prevention and law enforcement. And what we actually need is all of these systems taking up their rightful space to keep our communities safe, right, that prevention isn’t designed to move police out of the picture, and that police should see the value and prevention. And I think in one to one conversations with people who have gotten the opportunity to understand the work, whether that be law enforcement, understanding prevention, or prevention folks understanding the role of law enforcement, it clicks, but there’s a larger narrative that wants to pit these entities against each other that I think is doing a lot more harm than good in our communities. And so I’ve been talking about this ecosystem, like a healthcare system. When you go to the clinic, you don’t just see a doctor. You get checked in by a receptionist you may never see a doctor you may go in just to get lab by referral. Vitamist or radiology or dietitian, and everybody has a specificity, something that they are uniquely good at. And I think that’s what we’re looking to build out in public safety, the challenges, we’ve been trying to do this change in the midst of a public safety crisis. And so it’s hard to build a side by side system, in the midst of a crisis and under this kind of pressure. But that being said, I think sometimes the best lessons can happen in a crisis. And we may have to wade through some of these really challenging times, and get to the other side to see what we’ve learned and how we can implement things that are going to make our communities better and safer long term.

Chanda Smith Baker  20:41

So are there cities or places, jurisdictions that you believe are getting it right across the country?

Sasha Cotton  20:50

You know, there’s small examples of what it looks like to get it right. I think Oakland has done a really remarkable job of building out these bigger systems and these side-by-side systems. And so that’s a city that I looked to right before the pandemic, shortly after I was named the director, I went to spend some time in the Bay Area, both in Oakland and San Francisco, as well as in Stockton and Richmond, California, which is where the first Office of Violence Prevention was developed. And so I think those are great cities with examples of of high quality work that’s happening. The other place to look at particularly around violence prevention is New York City. We’ve seen significant reductions over time in their implementation of violence prevention, but as they’ve sort of matriculated backwards a little bit and have had deeper focus on law enforcement. We’re also seeing upticks and violence. And so I think what we know is when we can have these things working well together in big major cities, we see better outcomes. When they are gridlocked and fighting against each other, it hurts the people that we’re serving. And so those are two examples of places that I think Minneapolis and other cities can look to. But to be quite honest, even though we have struggled, Minneapolis is one of the places that is sought after as a national model. Right? We have done really incredible work here. And I’m not saying that because it’s my work. It is Minneapolis work. And we have done some, some deep digging in a short period of time to produce more programming and more services for our constituents in Minneapolis.

Chanda Smith Baker  22:23

We talked a little bit about defund. And then there’s the lawsuit. I don’t know if you can even speak to this around having the right sized police department for the population of our city. Do you have sort of thoughts on sort of the scoping of police services? Like do you think that a smaller force makes sense to you? I mean, do you like how should a person that doesn’t understand policing? And sort of the way in which you’re talking about it? How should we understand policing? Right? Because people are very confused on like, should we support them? Should we not support them? Is this the right size is not the right size? I mean, there’s so many questions are out there.

Sasha Cotton  23:06

There’s a ton of questions, and rightfully so. So I think one thing, so I do have to be careful the way that I talk about this in my current role. But I think, you know, just philosophically, you want police that can respond, you want a number of police who can respond to the demands that your community is placing on them. Right? So that becomes a really important question. Because different places require different things of police. And so in Minnesota, per state statute, the two things that we require police respond to are gun gun crimes, crimes with guns, and domestic violence calls for domestic violence services, right? We believe that those are some of the most serious incidents and that law enforcement should be deployed for those things. But everything else per state statute could have an alternative response. And so then it really comes down to what does government expect them to respond to? What does community expect law enforcement to respond to? And if not, then then who? And so an example of that would be the behavioral crisis unit, that is a partnership between canopy and the city now, you know, relatively low-level mental health calls that don’t involve, you know, serious incidents of violence, were able to deploy mental health responders without law enforcement to those calls. And so that’s one example of how we shift the burden off of law enforcement and allow other practitioners to take up a rightful space. I think as we get more, it’s not even created as we get more practical, right. I think we’ve gotten to a place in society in general. So it’s not just a Minneapolis problem, where we are over reliant on police to solve our problems, right. So when you’re over relying And then you call them for everything, which means you need more of them, right? So if my neighbor’s music is too loud, and I need to call the police for that, and that’s an expectation of mine and that my government has, then you have, you got to have a lot of police, because that’s going to happen quite often, right? But if we have an unarmed force, who can deal with that, or if we’re building the capacity of neighbors, to be able to go and knock on the door and say, Hey, neighbor, music’s really loud, I’m trying to sleep next door, right? That’s what we used to do, right? Like, I grew up in a community where that was really normal. And obviously, times have changed. And neighbors don’t know each other the same way that they did before. And people are being infiltrated with fear, right, with fear mongering. And some of its real, right. There are some really bizarre incidents that happen. But most of the time, the worst that’s going to happen is some that nice words exchanged, right that your neighbor might say, like, get out here and whatever. And then you call it, you call whoever right? You call somebody to deal with it. But most of the time, you’re gonna go and say, your music’s really loud. And I’ve got a six month old sleeping next door, could you please turn it down? Your neighbor’s gonna say, oh, my gosh, didn’t realize it was super loud, my bad, we’ll try to keep it down over here. And then nobody has to come. Right. And so I think part of what we have to grapple with as a society is, how much of our daily interpersonal interactions, are we depending on police to solve for us, right? Because we sometimes complete conflict with violence. Conflict is an inherent part of the of the human experience, right. And we need to be able to resolve our own conflicts, whether it’s in the workplace or at schools, and we need to have the tools to do that. Right. So conflict resolution, building our capacity to both have and received difficult conversations about our own behavior, the behaviors of our loved ones, and make those modifications without an outside entity forcing us to do so is part of the work, right, we’ve got to build those skills. But to the question of policing, I think it boils down to what do we expect our police to do? And in Minneapolis, right now, we are down multi hundreds of officers, right. 330, I believe it’s I was gonna say I believe the number is over 330, or over 300. Right. And in Minnesota, we require law enforcement agents to have a two-year degree to go through a set of skills that takes nine to 12 months. So we’re talking three years or so for someone who’s interested in law enforcement to go through the process of becoming a licensed peace officer in Minnesota. There’s not some pool that we can go pull from, and just plug people into these roles of law enforcement. So I know we hear the demands that we need more cops, we need more cops, there’s not a place to go and get them. And so right now, is a time where we do have to be innovative, we do have to think outside of the box about what are the most important things for our law enforcement agents to respond to? And what are the things that other people, other professionals can and should be doing. And if we don’t take that step in Minneapolis, we are going to continue to see the problems that we see. Because I think right now we find ourselves in a gridlock, where we are demanding the same thing from our police department that we got when we have 300 more officers. And that’s unrealistic. So I think we do need to be building our police capacity, I think the numbers that we’re at right now probably aren’t adequate for a city the size of Minneapolis, based on what we expect of law enforcement. That being said, we’re in a unique time where we can build out alternatives and solutions that are much faster to build, much easier to implement in this instrument and determine whether or not these are the appropriate things that we should be doing long term while we side by side refill our rank and file within the police department. And I think that that’s the both and that we shouldn’t be talking about. But it gets lost in the conversation because I think communities aren’t being educated and informed about the realities of the policing dynamic. In Minnesota, there’s no place to get these officers that you want. And also the ones that we want a diverse department, right? We want diversity, we not just diversity in culture and gender, but diversity in perspective. We want people who can police our streets with integrity, who have the lived experiences to treat people well. And finding those kinds of people doesn’t happen fast. That has to be cultivated. The culture has to be shifted within the US department and that’s also going to take time. And so I think cultivating these two things, these prevention and alternative opportunities, as well as a well equipped law enforcement department. is going to be the next chapter, it has to be the next chapter in Minneapolis.

Chanda Smith Baker  30:03

You know, I don’t know how well, you know, MPD. But I know when I think about policing, I think about being in a squad and running around, you know, running into like dangerous situations. And I know that there are other roles that are available within the police department. So when we’re talking about appropriately staffing, the Minneapolis Police Department, we’re not just talking about beat cops, is that correct? We’re talking about investigators, like, can you give us like, what are we? What are we looking for? Do you know?

Sasha Cotton  30:34

Yeah, so right now, I think the primary focus of the police department is 911 response, and investigations, those are the two things that they’re most responsible for, they have to do those things. And even those things right now, with the numbers that they have, are really hard to do. You know, I know that investigations is way behind. And we hear that frustration, I get calls from people in community who are saying, you know, I was a victim of a crime my family or was a victim of a crime. And it doesn’t feel like the police department’s taking it seriously, or it doesn’t feel like they’re doing anything. And while I can’t speculate on a case-by-case basis as to why what we do know is that investigators are overloaded with cases, right, they have, you know, double triple the number of cases that they should and normally what happened and so they have to prioritize, right? They have to look at what cases can I put effort into that might actually result in me finding something that could be charged? And what are the things that are sort of feeling like a dead end? And so they’re looking at, you know, is there video footage? Is there eyewitness is there other, you know, what is here that I can put together, and if there’s nothing, and it feels like it’s leading to a dead end, sometimes they have to like redline it and put it off to the side. And that feels terrible to a victim of violence as someone who’s been a victim of violence, and who was told, Hey, you should consider your bio PD, you should consider yourself lucky that nothing has happened to you and move forward with your life. Right? That feels awful. But the reality is, they’re human right? And they can’t magically make a case that isn’t there. And so I think that’s one thing. So building the capacity of investigators is important, because they are the people that are our residents want to call and say where are things happening with my case? And they want to feel like when they call that investigator can say, yep, Mrs. Baker, this is where we’re at with your case, these are the steps that I’ve taken, these are the things I still need to do. And I will be able to update you in three days, six days, 10 days, right, right now, that’s not possible with the capacity right? Half the time people call, they’re like, who are you? I don’t know, let me check my file. And that’s frustrating from a customer service perspective, right. So I think more investigators as important be cops are the frontline of law enforcement. It’s what people see. It’s how people engage. It’s how people begin to develop an opinion about law enforcement at their earliest age. And so when they’re running from 911, call to 911 call and they’re not able to stop at the local gas station and chat with a clerk they’re not able to stop and watch 20 minutes of the football game at North High, right? Then they’re not building relationships, they’re just chasing problems, right? And some people would say that that’s fine, right? That’s their job, let them chase the problem. But when you are the person faced with a problem, you want to feel like the officer responding knows, you knows your community might know someone who you know, even if you don’t know them personally, right? There’s a big difference. When the cop that shows up to respond to your crime. You just saw him at a football game last week, you know, giving high fives to the kids, are you seeing him at your local grocery store, there’s a different feeling that you have about their commitment to your safety. And so I think building that is important. And the only way to build that is to have more officers so they have more time to be able to be responsive. Now, when we think about positions, a lot of specialty units got cut, when we saw the depletion in the police department. So for example, the group violence intervention that I spoke about earlier, there used to be a gang unit that was embedded in the police department that was really focused on just that work. So they knew the high risk gang members. And their focus, of course, was to hold them accountable. It was also to introduce them to the services that group violence intervention can offer to put them on a different path. When you don’t have a set of officers who are just focused on that. You get the run of the mill, right. And so that’s it doesn’t mean that those officers are doing a bad job. But they’re not able to articulate what a gang officer could say. Again, officer could say, Hey, do you know for all the wrong can offer you these services? You should call him because how many times can I come out here and talk to you before I’m going to have something to arrest you? War, right? They can build those relationships that can’t happen in our current environment. specialty units like that the power program, which we’ve heard lots and lots of people complain about leaving is no longer as efficient as it used to be, I don’t even think it’s really up and running. And so some of those things that were public facing, that allowed communities to better understand and better build relationships with law enforcement don’t exist. But again, I’ll pivot back to this issue of legitimacy. Because if officers are not operating with legitimacy, none of it matters, right. So if you have a police force that is respected, and that people believe are there to do the right things, and protect the community, all of the community, not just certain people, but police have a responsibility to protect, you know, the quote, unquote, bad guys, too, right. So when we did our bounds intervention, that was one of the things that we said, they have an obligation to prevent you from getting shot too, even though you’re an active group member, right? That’s part of their job. We lose all of that when legitimacy is lost when we see officers who are taking, taking the opportunity to cause harm in communities. And so I think there’s a balancing act that has to be achieved. I think we want officers to have the time to build relationships. But I also think we’ve done things in the past that haven’t been as effective. At one time, we had a whole community engagement unit. I don’t inherently think there was anything wrong with that. But I think what we want is officers who are walking a beat or doing investigations, who are also in and invested in our communities, not a set aside with people who, you know, show up and do community engagement, and then go sit back at their desks, we want the same officers that could respond to a crime, to know our kids to know our communities and to be embedded in our community in a way where they can respond with integrity and respect.

Chanda Smith Baker  36:54

Yeah, I could not agree with you more on that one. And then, you know, let me give a shout out to Sergeant Kia Boyd, who is responsible for recruitment. She has got a very tough job.

Sasha Cotton  37:05

Yes, she does.

Chanda Smith Baker  37:06

And I often feel very bad for her in terms of the role and responsibility in this context. But she’s doing a fantastic job of trying to bring people in and ultimately to keep us all safe. And, you know, I have my opinion, I think what we’re talking about is just how policing works. Like I honestly think that we need to have people in community. And we’ve talked about a number of things from like, just neighbors being able to talk to neighbors to settle conflict, we’ve talked about having the right scoping and the right response to issues that are happening in community. And many of those things do not need to have a police response. Right? And then for things that need a police response, we need folks that can help create legitimacy of the police department that have respect for community, right, like the ecosystem that you were speaking to. It needs to function and we need to get the right people in play that have respect and understanding of the nuances that exist inside of community.

Sasha Cotton  38:06

Yeah, I think that that’s spot on, Chanda, the ecosystem piece is so important. But also, recruitment is so important and finding people who want to do this work. I have a 23-year-old son who I’ve been egging, like, you know, you are the kind of person that needs to be in policing. You’re young, you’re male, you’re from an urban community, he works at Balboa Park, right? But the perceptions about policing in our community have been so deeply tarnished, that it’s really hard to find people who reflect our communities who want to do that job. And so kudos to those who do because it’s the only way we’re going to get change. But also, we’ve got to take a hard look at a culture of policing and MPD. Because I think one thing that I always say, even engaging with officers of color is like, Are they an officer of color who comes from our communities and understands it? Or are they a cop first, because I think, you know, policing has its own subculture. And that can be you know, about unifying and being connected, but it can also have some toxicity to it, too. And so I think, ensuring that people have the support that they need, right when someone from black and brown communities decides to go into law enforcement, making sure that we’re not, we’re not judging them, that they feel like, this is a career choice that’s going to benefit the community. Because so often, we’re calling them Uncle Tom’s we’re treating them telling them, yeah, there are sellouts, right. And even those of us who are doing prevention work now are getting that kind of feedback because we’re inside of systems. But the reality is, we need people from our communities to be in play in those places. We constantly say we want black and brown and diverse communities to be at the table. But then when people get there, we turn our backs on them. And we only want them to say the things that we tell them we don’t want than to have an authentic voice that’s representative or reflective of the diversity of our communities. Because we’re not one dimensional, there is not one black or one Latino or one Asian experience, right? But the best changemakers are people who come from our communities who can represent the diversity of our communities, and also be embedded and trusted within these systems, right? To have that duality. And when we as community turn our backs on those people, and we tell them, Oh, you’re a cop, or oh, your government, you’re not really a part of us anymore. The government will embrace them, the police department will embrace them, they will give them a cultural home to be a part of. And that may not be what we want, it is usually not what we want. So I implore our community to really think critically about how we support people, particularly young people of color, who pursue careers in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement and Corrections, because we desperately need them there. We desperately need their eyes and ears to be both present, and community as residents and community members. And as agents of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, we can bridge the gap. But if we shun them, it won’t work.

Chanda Smith Baker  41:07

Yeah, yeah, I hear that. So let’s make a pivot. Because you are leaving the city. I think it’s effective July 15.

Sasha Cotton  41:15

This is correct. I have accepted a role with John Jay College and the National Network for Safe Communities, which is the national international home for the group violence intervention that we talked a little bit about earlier, as well as a number of other evidence-based strategies. It’s based out of New York City and is working in about 40 cities across the US and a number of countries across the globe, focused on violence prevention strategies.

Chanda Smith Baker  41:39

And so your role will be to do what?

Sasha Cotton  41:43

So I’ll be acting as the Deputy Director, I’ll be overseeing all programming, both national and international. So really supporting the implementation of the various programs that we work with across the portfolio, and really building the brand. I think we’re seeing a changing demographic and leadership around violence prevention, David Kennedy, who is the executive director at the National Network for safe communities, is a renowned expert was highly sought after, as is Dr. Slutsky, who came from Cure Violence, these are sort of, as I say, of two of the founding fathers of violence prevention, who started doing this work in the 90s. But the demographic is changing. And I think that that’s appropriate. You know, these were older, white, you know, academic people who are researching and evaluating work that was primarily impacting black and brown communities. And so, I know that Cure Violence has recently brought on an executive director who’s a Black man from St. Louis, I believe, and now I’ll be at the National Network and a high leadership role. And we’re seeing black and brown led organizations across the country, gain higher credibility as leaders in this industry. And I think that that’s the right direction. I think all hands on deck is critically important. And certainly having that academic lens to evaluate this work is critically important. But I also think ensuring that black and brown voices are centered is is important. So I’m really proud and excited to take my leadership to the national level and be able to support the National Network in that way.

Chanda Smith Baker  43:11

Well, it’s a really exciting thing for you, and I’m happy for you and your leadership to watch it grow. I do feel like it’s going to be a loss to our city. Although I know John Jay has partnered with the City of Minneapolis for some time.

Sasha Cotton  43:26

Yes. So I yeah, yes, I understand. People feel like it’s a major loss to the City of Minneapolis. So first and foremost, I want to say I’m leaving Minneapolis in a really great hands. Josh Peterson will be acting as the interim director. And as I mentioned before, Josh has been with me since day one. He was actually at the city before me he beat me by six months. But most of what I’ve talked about he and I have cloned built together, II while his technical title is deputy director or manager of the OTP. He has been side by side with me the entire time. So he knows this work and and out is a dedicated and committed person to this work just finished his master’s at Johns Hopkins in violence prevention with a public safety public health approach. So really grounded in the academic piece and in the infrastructure inside of the city and making sure the systems continue to work. He’s also really committed to ensuring that the underserved are served, right. So I feel good about that. You’ve also got Jen White, who was a manager in the office and many folks know she’s been in the city for over 15 years has really strong relationships with lots of folks inside of the city, but also really great relationships and communities. So I know that the two of them are going to be a powerhouse and continuing to roll the workout. The trumpet Burnett has been detailed to our office and is doing great work on the north side and on the south side and a community focused role. And so while I’m leaving, I’m not going far I will maintain a residence in the Twin Cities and we’ll continue to keep my eye on the team but I feel like they’re ready and also committed It is ready. The community has been building its own muscle to do this work. And I think that there is some muscle memory now. And so whether it’s me, Josh or anyone else steering the ship, I think community is ready to keep this work moving forward.

Chanda Smith Baker  45:12

Yeah. And I have great faith in Josh, I think he’s fantastic. And I have lots of love for Jen. She’s been around for a long time. And I can attest to her depth of relationships and understanding of what’s happening. And then E, you know, what’s not to love about E. And so what a great team to leave that you have built, that has community orientation, and then understanding of the system. So that’s just fantastic. Before we leave this conversation, I just want to pivot. Because in embedded in all of this was a little thread around, how do you evaluate? And I know that this comes up a lot, particularly in a season where crime rates are so high. And so can you just talk about like, how do you measure and I know that this is newer, in practice, it’s an evolving thing that many cities across the country are looking at. And folks in community are like, yo, like, we’re spending all this money. We’re figuring out all this stuff. We’re hearing all this violence prevention stuff, we got boots on the ground, and folks are getting carjacked, and folks are getting shot. And like, Where’s the proof?

Sasha Cotton  46:18

Yeah, it’s a real question, right? And so we don’t run from that. What we’ll say is that most studies of this work need to be done after a two year mark, right? Like, that’s just what the science tells us. Because it takes a while to gather enough data to actually be able to measure what the impacts are. That being said, we did just do our first update to the city council on Wednesday about the outcomes from the Minneapolis Strategic Outreach model, aka the interrupters. And what we’re able to really focus on how is trust building? is the number of contacts that they’re having. So are they meeting people? Are they engaging with people? And not just like, hey, how you doing on the street? But when they’re engaging with people? How many referrals are they able to make? are they connecting people to resources that put them on a different trajectory. And what we evaluated in this first end of year report was the first six months of the full value of the full implementation, so may to December of 2021. And what we’ve found is that they’ve had over 2000 referrals for people to get employment services and educational recommendations and housing and treatment for drug addiction. And so those are real time examples of what this work is doing to push people in the right direction. And that’s really important, long term we want to ensure that we’re measuring is, is having an impact on gun violence in the concentrate areas that our teams are working in. And that’s the measure that’s going to take some time to be able to evaluate. But one of the things that we’ve fought for, for a long time in the Office of Violence Prevention is a full time evaluator embedded in our work. And for the first time ever, this year, we have that position. So that’s a big deal. We’ve also been fighting for resources to have a data system, right? So we can input all this information, not about people, but about individual experiences in the work so that we can catalog what’s happening and be able to output what what is our work doing? How have we impacted the people, how we impacted the environment, and that has to be built. And so again, I think people hear a number like $11 million. And it sounds like a lot of money. 80% of that or so has gone back out into community through contracts, right? So it’s not like we’re sitting on this money and just coveting it in the city, it is actually being pushed back out both to do service. But I think it’s also really important to note that it’s employing black and brown people, right, which we know, is a violence prevention strategy. Employment of high risk individuals is a violence prevention strategy. And so when you see the interrupters, yes, some of them are teachers and counselors, but some of them are former gang members. Some of them are people with criminal history. Some of them are people who have been recently released from prison. And so giving them an opportunity to not only be employed, but to do something that they are personally passionate about, because so many of them want to give back to the community that they’ve taken so much from. And so giving them a paid opportunity to do that is also helping to impact recidivism rates and reentry. And so it’s a two fold approach. But absolutely, evaluation is critically important. Our work hasn’t existed that long. And so valuation unfortunately, is one of those things that takes a little bit of time. But we’re committed to being able to demonstrate what the work is doing, and to tweak and refine as we go. What I ask from community is a bit of grace, right that our police department has existed for over 150 years. And the evaluation is moderate, right? When we see upticks in violence. People usually want more police, not less. And so we should be asking for more of everything when we see our community struggling on public safety, because we need all hands on deck to keep our community safe. And violence prevention does contribute to that safety.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:07

I know that folks are very interested in learning more about violence prevention and how to keep communities safe. Do you have resources that you would recommend if people wanted to do any further digging that they should? They should go check out?

Sasha Cotton  50:22

Yeah, absolutely. I encourage folks to look at our website, they want to know specific information about the Minneapolis work. There’s a lot of detailed information about our programs. And that end of year spending report for 2021 is available there. So you can really see how the funds were distributed. If you’re interested in sort of that accountability piece. I think from a global or bigger picture perspective, some places to look, obviously, I’m gonna plug the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, they’re doing some really great work and have been for a long time again, they’re one of those agencies that’s been around for the longest, you know, the route rounds and invention was tested in first in Boston with the Boston miracle. And next in Minneapolis, there’s a lot of people don’t know, but had great impact in the 90s here in Minneapolis for a short time. And so learning more about these evidence-based strategies can be a really great way to get a better better understanding of how violence prevention is intended to work. So checking out the work of the group violence intervention at National Network for safe communities, Googling Cure Violence and getting a sense of the work that they’re doing. And then Cities United, who has been a great partner to us here in Minneapolis does a great job of helping cities to develop strategic plans, and really develop a strategy that will put a city on a trajectory for safer communities. And so I think looking at the websites for those organizations along with the hobby, I’ll plug the hobby that’s our hospital based partner, HAVI or the hospital alliance for violence intervention, that is critically important, because we want to make sure we’re meeting people immediately after a serious injury know that recidivism and retaliation drives a lot of the violence in most major cities. And so if we can reach people, right after they’ve been a victim and encourage them not to retaliate, it can make a huge difference and keeping us all safe.

Chanda Smith Baker  52:07

I guess one question about that. So like the solve rate, like we were talking about that earlier. So when you don’t have investigators, like in my mind, retaliation goes up? Because you’re not solving? Is that sort of the psycho word?

Sasha Cotton  52:20

Yeah. So that’s definitely a factor Chanda when we’re not able to solve when people are not being arrested for crimes that the community knows they committed. It creates a dynamic where retaliation is high. Right. And so that’s a factor. I also think that part of it is sort of our courts, right? So people have to understand that this is a multi-faceted approach, that even when officers might make a good arrest, if the courts release people, you know, without holding them back can lead to retaliation. We certainly saw some of that during COVID. And again, I’m not advocating for the overuse of incarceration, we know that that has been a weapon that has been used in our community. And so we don’t want that. But we do want to ensure that when people perpetrate harm in our community, they’re held accountable, and that we’re doing that prevention work too. Right. So that we’re reaching them to talk about retaliation we’re offering we’re offering safe housing and relocation to people if they’re willing to take that opportunity to not be in harm’s way, if they know that they’re being targeted because of something that has happened.

Chanda Smith Baker  53:23

So is there anything that I haven’t asked that you want to say?

Sasha Cotton  53:27

You know, I think the biggest thing is that Minneapolis is at the epicenter of this reimagining public safety mantra that we’ve heard over the last two years. And I encourage our city and the Twin Cities at large to stay the course, change is hard. Growth always comes with growing pains, it’s always uncomfortable. But if we can get to the other side of this together, and with a commitment to safety, and an open mindedness to what that means, I think that we will see outcomes and improvements that we can’t even really imagine, and, and things that are centering community and what community needs versus a top down approach. I just heard Gloria Steinem this morning, and I want to kind of put her and that is that change doesn’t happen from the top down. It’s like a tree, it grows from the bottom up. And so if we get our communities involved, if we’re open minded to the change, and we grow the seedlings, we can see long term change. But we have to recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight. And I understand how frustrating that is because the violence is happening now. So it has to be both and we have to do things that keep us safe now. We also have to build a future for our children that allows them the safety that they deserve, without heavy handedness. And so that’s my my wish for the Twin Cities in Minneapolis.

Chanda Smith Baker  54:50

Sasha Cotton. Thank you so much. I appreciate your leadership. I’m looking forward to watch how you spread your expertise across our nation and our globe. So thank you.

Sasha Cotton  55:01

Thank you, Chanda. As always, it’s great to be with you.

Souphak Kienitz  55:06

If you enjoy this show and want to learn more about what we do here at the Minneapolis Foundation, please visit us online at And of course, if you want to follow Chanda, or the Minneapolis Foundation on Twitter or Instagram, that’s ChandaSBaker, or MPLSfoundation. This is Souphak Kienitz. Thanks for listening.

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About Our Guest

Sasha Cotton

Sasha Cotton is currently the Director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention (Minneapolis OVP) in the Minneapolis Health Department. The Minneapolis OVP is responsible for coordinating violence prevention initiatives across the city and engaging with communities throughout Minneapolis to better address violence and safety issues using a public health approach. The Minneapolis OVP houses violence prevention programs, including a Group Violence Intervention model and a Hospital-Based Violence Intervention program. Sasha’s work experience prior to her current position includes serving as the National Resource Center Coordinator at The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC), as well as serving as the Prevention Program Manager for the Violence Free Minnesota — the state’s domestic violence coalition. She is currently representing Minnesota on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and is the Vice President of the African American Leadership Council.