A Pastor Got Fed Up With a Crime Hotspot So He Bought It

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joe Barrett headlined “A Pastor Got Fed Up With a Crime Hotspot, So He Bought It”:

MINNEAPOLIS—Bishop Larry Cook was preparing for Bible study one summer night in 2021 when he confronted a group of young men selling fentanyl and other drugs in the alley between his church and a Marathon gas station on this city’s north side.

“Y’all got to move on from back here, you need to do something else,” he told the men. “It got a little heated and they finally told me if I wanted to do something about it, I’d have to buy the gas station.”

A little over a year later, he did just that, coming up with $3 million for the corner property, which includes a convenience store and rents space to a fried-chicken place. Since the purchase on Nov. 1, he and members of the church, Real Believers Faith Center, have cleaned up the grimy store, started regular security patrols to keep the drug dealers at bay and stopped selling tobacco products to anyone under 21.

“We really believe this can be a powerful piece of the community,” he said.

Criminologists say crime often happens in hot spots, such as apartment complexes, convenience stores, gas stations, liquor stores, laundromats and inexpensive hotels. Taking them over is one way local groups like this Black church can try to take their neighborhoods back. It is also in line with efforts by Minneapolis to restore peace in a city jolted by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Inspector Charlie Adams, the top officer in Minneapolis’s fourth precinct, said he has been focused on hot spots since he took over the command about two years ago. He said he initially identified 10 high-crime locations and planned to use overtime to lure officers to spend extra time there. But in the wake of the backlash against police and mass resignations by officers following the murder of George Floyd by former officer Derek Chauvin, he said he couldn’t get any officers to volunteer for the extra shifts.

The following summer, he partnered instead with a group of mostly Black churches for an event called 21 Days of Peace, which held community outreach at the hot spots and helped reduce crime at most of them, Inspector Adams said.

One location that proved tougher to turn around was Winner Gas Station and a nearby liquor store, located a few blocks away from Bishop Cook’s church. In September, Minneapolis police, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the local business association and a nonprofit all teamed up to put pressure on the two businesses to clean up their acts, Inspector Adams said. Now, the liquor store has partnered with the nonprofit and the gas station has hired a new security force, resulting in a rare period of quiet in the area, he said. The owners of the two businesses couldn’t be reached for comment.

But as things began to turn around at Winner, a turf war broke out at the Marathon Bishop Cook was close to purchasing, Inspector Adams said. A shooting about a month before the purchase left several people injured and a bullet lodged in a wall of the church, according to Bishop Cook.

Responding to complaints from a nearby business, Inspector Adams beefed up surveillance in the alley behind the Marathon and a nearby abandoned building. Shortly after the sale of the gas station went through, a multiagency task force raided a nearby apartment building, netting 10,000 fentanyl pills and nearly a dozen arrests, according to a press release from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office.

Inspector Adams said addressing the hot spots is helpful, but he acknowledges that it doesn’t end crime. “It moves it, but it takes pressure off that block. It’s just kind of, people can breathe, right?” he said.

Joel Caplan, a professor of criminology at Rutgers University, agreed that one-off efforts move but don’t end crime. “If crime patterns are analyzed throughout the city, and that analysis is used to allocate resources to places that need the most, then you can mitigate risk,” he said.

Bishop Cook, 52 years old, grew up in north Minneapolis and wrestled and played football at the same high school where Inspector Adams is an assistant football coach. Today, the former athlete walks with difficulty due to knee injuries he says he sustained playing sports.

Antwjuan Cole, Bishop Cook’s son-in-law and an assistant manager and security guard at the gas station, said young people are still coming into the store looking to buy tobacco products they can sprinkle with marijuana.

“We still get them to this day to try their luck when a new person goes on shift, but everyone here knows it’s 21-plus,” he said. And he said he still sees what he considers suspicious activity in the parking lot. He said he chases away cars that linger. On a recent evening, a man pumping gas into a beat-up Ford Explorer hurriedly got into the back of a Maserati SUV with tinted windows, and then hustled back to his own car.

Abdul Said, manager of Hook Fish and Chicken across Broadway, a major business corridor, from the Marathon, said he has noticed a significant reduction in criminal activity since Bishop Cook took over. “There have been shootings, drug dealing, gang activity. This little corner here is kind of like a big priority for those activities. So if they shut it down completely, it would significantly help Broadway in general,” he said.

Bishop Cook said he knew several of those arrested in the recent raid, including some of the men he spoke to who were selling drugs behind the gas station that summer evening in 2021. “I didn’t drop the dime on nobody,” he said.

He knows that the arrests will make it easier to keep things quiet at the gas station, but he is still concerned about those arrested.

“I’m into conversion,” he said. “You know, when I see those guys I see the same guys I got in my church, I see me. I was warning those guys. I said, ‘This can only end one way, in jail or the graveyard.’ That’s what we were talking about when we got into it.”

Joe Barrett is a Wall Street Journal correspondent covering Midwest public safety, economics, development, demographic changes, infrastructure, the changing environment and all the interesting places that make the region much more than flyover country. He lives in Chicago.

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