ST. PAUL — The legal document that spells out the circumstances of Nia Black’s shooting in St. Paul is sealed in an envelope in her mother’s nightstand drawer.
LaTanya Black knows the basics, but she can’t bring herself yet to read the details about what happened when her 23-year-old daughter was killed on an early June morning.
“A mother’s job is to protect your kids, right?” Black said recently. “Everything you do from the time that they’re babies is protect them."
Thirty-four people died in homicides in St. Paul in 2020. That number matched the record in Minnesota’s capital city, which was set in 1992.
At the same time as people were grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, officials say the epidemic of gun violence ramped up in St. Paul and in cities around the country.
“The common denominator this year, more so than any other year in the history of our department, is the vast, vast majority of those homicides are gun-related,” said Police Chief Todd Axtell.
For the first time in St. Paul, more than 200 people were shot in a year — there were 220 people as of Monday, with 28 sustaining fatal wounds. In 2019, there were 164 people shot, 27 of them fatally.
Officers recovered 658 guns and reports of shots-fired skyrocketed by 110 percent compared with 2019.
“One can be certain that the pandemic itself has produced stress and financial strain that’s contributed to the violence,” said Richard Rosenfeld, University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of criminology and criminal justice. “How much is related to the pandemic? We simply don’t know.”
All categories of major crime were up in St. Paul in 2020, versus the year before, except for sexual assault and residential burglary, Axtell said.
In Minneapolis, violent and property crimes have returned to January 2020 levels, said Dallas Drake, senior researcher at the Center for Homicide Research, which is based in Minneapolis.
Reduction in gang homicides, increase in domestic homicides
While St. Paul is in step with a national trend of increased homicides, its story is somewhat different than other places studied by Rosenfeld. Its numbers jumped in 2019.
There were 30 homicides in St. Paul in 2019, almost double the year before. In the preceding 20 years, the average was 16 homicides a year.
Gang-related homicides fueled the 2019 increase, Axtell said. That year, there were 12 homicides connected to gangs; in 2020, there were two.
Last year, more people died in situations of domestic or family violence — there were eight, compared with two in 2019, Axtell said.
Based on allegations in criminal complaints, a St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis found there were at least another 13 homicides that happened during arguments or fights, five were connected to drug deals and/or robberies, and two occurred when a gun accidentally fired.
Of the 34 people killed, the youngest was a 4-week-old and the oldest was a 61-year-old. The average age was 30.
The latest homicide victim was Jayse Wilson, who was 2. A man was charged with manslaughter for allegedly leaving a gun where the boy was able to access it and accidentally shoot himself in his North End apartment on Dec. 23.
“It’s all heartbreaking, but in particular … to get the news that we lost a 2-year-old to gun violence, it’s just something that no one in our community should be prepared to accept,” said Mayor Melvin Carter.
Disputes that led to killings
The disputes that ended in homicides in St. Paul ranged from brief verbal exchanges to a long-standing feud.
“Many of our homicide victims, unfortunately, are losing their lives over disrespect or perceived disrespect,” Axtell said.
The clash that resulted in Anthony Boelter’s shooting allegedly involved him and people at a Dayton’s Bluff residence where his ex-girlfriend lived. Boelter made a point of driving by on a regular basis, according to murder charges.
But Boelter’s mother, Jeanette Boelter, said the seven-year dispute really was between her and her husband, and a woman they’d been friends with for many years. She said she never imagined it would end with her 21-year-old son being killed.
“You never think about one day getting a phone call that your son’s friend’s car got shot up, and one of them didn’t make it,” Jeanette Boelter wrote in a remembrance on the Everytown for Gun Safety website. “I got that call April 25. I never prayed so hard in my life, but it was my son. … Anthony wasn’t the best kid, but he was my kid, and I loved him so much that they used to call him my favorite.”
Homicides are more often committed by someone a person knows, but some of the deadly encounters were more fleeting. Two men — Darius Van and Douglas Lewis — died after separate shootings 30 minutes apart the night of May 1.
Van, 28, and Ts’John Thomas Reed, 23, had a disagreement over their places in line at a Payne-Phalen gas station, which turned into a fight and Reed shooting Van, according to murder charges against Reed.
Meanwhile, a minor traffic collision led to Lewis, 39, and Anthony Trifiletti, 25, exchanging words and Trifiletti shooting Lewis, prosecutors said in a murder charge against Trifiletti.
Both Reed and Trifiletti had a permit to carry a gun. Trifiletti told police that he shot Lewis because he was scared Lewis was going for a gun; police did not find a weapon on Lewis, the criminal complaint said. Reed reported he had acted in self-defense. Both have pleaded not guilty and their court cases are ongoing.
Charges brought in most homicides
Despite having more homicides than normal, St. Paul’s clearance rate for 2020 homicides was 91 percent. The national average was 61 percent in 2019, according to the FBI.
“If you commit a homicide in St. Paul, your chances of getting caught are pretty high,” said Drake of the Center for Homicide Research. He said that’s a credit to good police work and community members being willing to work with police to solve the cases.
In 2019, during the spike in gang-related homicides, Axtell shifted officers to the gang/gun unit to support homicide investigations and combat the rise in gun violence. It’s a change that’s been made permanent. Axtell said he believes the increased focus resulted in the reduction in gang homicides and the diligence of investigators led to arrests in most of the 2020 homicides. Three of the 34 homicides remain unsolved, according to police.
Like St. Paul, most cities in the United States saw homicide rates peak in the early 1990s, often linked to violence associated with crack cocaine markets and gangs, said Rosenfeld, the criminologist. As crack use decreased, gangs became more splintered and economic conditions generally improved, homicides fell in the years that followed.
In a study for the Council on Criminal Justice about crime trends during the coronavirus pandemic, Rosenfeld looked at the average weekly homicide rate in 21 cities for which data was available (St. Paul and Minneapolis were included in the overall study of 28 cities, but not for homicides). In the cities around the country, Rosenfeld found the average city homicide rate from March to October increased by 32 percent from the same period the year before.
In Minneapolis, there were 81 homicides compared with 48 in 2019, according to police department statistics. There were an average of 40 homicides a year in Minneapolis in the preceding five years.
Studying domestic violence during pandemic
Violence Free Minnesota counted at least 27 instances of people killed due to domestic violence in the state in 2020, compared with 21 in 2019, said Liz Richards, the organization’s executive director. There were an average of 23 domestic violence homicides a year in Minnesota in the preceding five years, based on Violence Free Minnesota statistics.
Richards said they’ve been working with researchers at the University of Minnesota who are looking into what effect the pandemic, particularly the stay-at-home order from March to May, had on domestic violence victims and the programs that work with them. Domestic violence calls to police increased in some Minnesota cities during the lockdown in the spring, as did calls to a statewide hotline for help, Richards said.
“What we have heard consistently across our programs across the period of COVID is that in the calls they are getting, the levels of abuse that people are talking about are much more severe,” Richards said. They’ve also heard about people who had difficulty getting away from their abuser to make a call for help.
In February, before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota, two women — Monique Robbins, 28, and Abigail Simpson, 21 — were killed in St. Paul within hours of each other. Their boyfriends have been charged with murder.
“It’s a terrible tragedy and loss that we live with every day,” Michelle Simpson, Abigail’s mother, said recently. “… It was so brutal and there’s a fair amount of unanswered questions. Our whole family, we don’t want her life and her death to be in vain.”
Simpson, who graduated from West Bend High School in Wisconsin in 2017 and was a member of the varsity volleyball team, was a college student in St. Paul and aspired to be an attorney, her family wrote in her obituary.
Other reported instances of family violence in St. Paul included 4-week-old Zion Chea, whose father is accused of throwing the crying infant on the floor in April; 45-year-old Lay Hae, whose 16-year-old nephew is charged with strangling him in July; and 17-year-old Davant Coppage, whose 24-year-old brother allegedly stabbed him in August.
Effects of police-community relations, COVID-19
The pandemic and social unrest after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody impacted policing and violence-prevention efforts around the country, according to Rosenfeld.
When people have less trust in the police and have the impression that they’re not responding as they had before, “that widens the space for so-called street justice to take hold,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld tracked a national spike in homicides that began in the last week of May and the start of June — after Floyd died and protests began locally and nationally — though a corresponding increase wasn’t seen in St. Paul.
Drake studies how homicides are distributed throughout a year and counts the number of days between homicides as times of peacefulness. He’s seen an upward trend for peacefulness in St. Paul and Minneapolis through the year — “in other words, it’s calming down,” Drake said. However, there was an uptick in homicides in St. Paul in December.
As for the coronavirus, social-distancing requirements generally limited face-to-face engagement for both officers and community groups who work to “help keep crime in check,” Rosenfeld said.
Carter said he remains committed to a data-driven and coordinated “community-first” approach. The homicide numbers “show that we have to do public safety fundamentally different,” Carter said, by interrupting cycles of violence and letting officers focus on the most serious crimes. He’s convened a commission to study alternatives to police response for low-level disturbances.
LaTanya Black has aimed to turn her anguish over her daughter’s shooting into action.
She remembers Nia “Brooklyn” Black as someone who was wise beyond her 23 years and who had natural talent as an artist. She was a professional makeup artist who ran her business out of a Minneapolis studio and was active with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association.
Black, of Coon Rapids, went to the Lamplighter Lounge at Larpenteur Avenue and Rice Street in St. Paul with her friends on June 13, but the bar was full and they weren’t allowed in. In the parking lot, Black became involved in a verbal then a physical altercation with another woman that “turned into a widespread brawl,” according to a murder charge.
As Black and her friends drove away, gunshots rang out and Black was killed.
Soon after, LaTanya Black started Mothers Against Community Gun Violence, working with other mothers of homicide victims to bring gun-violence awareness to the community, and holding support groups and restorative yoga sessions.
“I said, ‘We can’t just lay Nia to rest and walk away and then wait for another child to be killed,’ ” LaTanya Black recalled. “As long as I’m fighting for her to try to get justice, and heal the hurt and the pain that you see in the eyes of mothers, that unspoken pain, that keeps me going.”