Trauma and crime: The hidden epidemic

Several efforts are underway in Minneapolis to intervene in violent crime by recognizing that many of the perpetrators are also victims of emotional trauma.  

It reflects a growing body of research that approaches crime not just as a law enforcement problem, but as a public health crisis.  

For the last two years, the city of Minneapolis has been practicing Group Violence Intervention (GVI) with a program called Project LIFE, which targets 110 violent offenders in North Minneapolis, so-called “impact players,” who are responsible for most of the shootings and violence.

"The hardest guys you could see on the streets,” said Ferome Brown, a community outreach worker.  He said most of the young men had also experienced some form of emotional trauma in their own lives. 


“Every last one of them says 'I want a change', 'I don’t want to do this', 'I want a job,'" said Brown.

Brown, who did prison time for dealing crack cocaine in the mid-90’s, is a frequent presence at crime scenes on the North Side.  

“Talk to the family is the first thing I do. I talk about their (victims’) kids and their family because a lot of guys when they talk about retaliation, they don’t think about their mom or their kids not going to be in their lives,” said Brown.

It may be working. In two years, only seven out of the 110 impact players have been charged with a new felony involving a weapon. Only one participant has died from homicide.  

“What we are saying is there’s an opportunity for you to change, and the philosophy we operate on is that we are all one bad decision away from being in the shoes of the young men we are serving,” said Sasha Cotton, the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator. 

Minneapolis is now expanding Project LIFE to South Minneapolis. Leaders from the Native American, Latina, and Somali community recently told organizers that their problems are unique on the South Side. 

"We’re not saying what works on the north side is going to work on the south side,” said Cotton, who added that Group Violence Intervention strategies will need to be tailored to the individual communities. 


Local hospitals are no strangers to trauma, but are also embracing approaches that recognize emotional trauma.  

"A lot of people inflicting this violence are individuals who’ve been hurt themselves,” said Farji Shaheer, who runs the Next Step program at Hennepin Health (formerly HCMC) and North Memorial.  

A staff of eleven counselors meet with those shot or stabbed in the emergency room, sometimes connecting with them before they even go into surgery.  

They focus on the wounds doctors can’t see. 

Of the 183 Next Step participants, only five have returned to Hennepin Health with a violent injury. Only one participant was murdered. He was Jacob’s brother.

“I’ve lost too many people to count,” said Jacob, 20, whose name FOX 9 is choosing not to disclose for his own safety.  

Shaheer reached out to the family on their first day in the hospital, offering guidance and support.  

"It’s not what he (Shaheer) said, it’s what he did for me as my mentor,” said Jacob.


Psychologist, Mark Sander supervises therapists in more than 200 schools in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. 

“We often say, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ without realizing, ‘what happened to you?’” said Mark Sander, a senior clinical psychologist with Hennepin County, who supervises therapists in more than 200 schools.  

“When individuals are growing up with toxic stress it’s physical, it has an impact and your body gets stuck in fight or flight mode all the time,” said Sander. 

It is possible to measure that trauma, what is known as adverse childhood experiences or ACES.

An ACES survey will ask a series of a questions to determine the level of trauma, such as: Do you have a parent in prison? Do you have a family member who is mentally ill, an alcoholic, or drug addict? Were you emotionally, physically, or sexually abused?

A Minnesota Health Department study found nearly half of all Minnesotans can answer yes to at least one.

But there are dramatic disparities when it comes to those who have experienced five or more aces. Among whites, only 7% have experience five or more traumatic life events.  But for African Americans 19% have five or more, for American Indians it is 23%, and Hispanics it is 12%.

The study found those with five or more traumas are less likely to have a job, a home or spouse and are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and in poor health.

“There are scientifically proven impacts of having adversity early in your life that has lifelong effects physically, emotionally and socially,” Sander said.


One non-profit group dealing with emotional trauma in a hands-on way, is the Man Up Club.  

Every Thursday night, a group of young men meet in Minneapolis to discuss the traumas they’ve experienced in their lives.  

“Trauma is something that if it happens to you, you can’t shake it off,” Korey Dean told the young men.  Dean is the found and executive director of Man Up. 

"What’s going on in life, people being killed, there's got to be a lot of pain going on,” said one of the young men, who watched a man die when he was only 12.  

Jamario’s uncle, Jamar Clark, was shot and killed by police.

“Made me feel like I was empty that I didn’t have anything to live for,” Jamario told FOX 9. 

He said he has found comfort sharing his story with the other participants in the Man Up Club.