Owners of Merwin Liquors are trying a new approach against crime on its property

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It’s a new approach in safety and security.

“We don’t have loitering, we don’t have drug dealing,” says Cindy Tapper, Vice President of Merwin Liquors. “We have customers in the parking lot that are customers. They come in, they conduct business, and they leave.”

The community group We Push For Peace is now a high visibility presence at the Merwin store in North Minneapolis.

“We don’t have no congregating and hanging out,” declares Trahern Pollard, founder and CEO of the group. “And all the other things that was happening over here beforehand.”

What was happening, according to police records, is a history of violent crime — including shootings —and drug activity on the property.

On Sept. 15, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sent letters to Merwin Liquors and the nearby business Winner Gas, informing the owners he was launching a civil investigation for potential violations of state law.

“Everything from shootings to drug dealing,” Ellison said at the time. “Public consumption of alcohol, public consumption of drugs, drug dealing.”

Less than a month later, the attorney general warned both businesses they might be sued — that a complaint would be filed in thirty days if they didn’t stop unlawful activity on their properties, or reach an agreement with the city, county, and the AG’s office.

“I agree this has been a problematic corner,” Tapper notes. “I don’t necessarily agree that our business has been the problem, or the reason, or the root cause of that.”

She says the store started taking action days before Ellison announced his investigation.

Tapper says We Push For Peace began working there on Sept. 12 — hiring 15 people to operate and manage the store, and to patrol the front parking lot.

“This added a presence on the corner and a peaceful presence,” she says. “We Push For Peace are not armed, they go out and they speak with members of the community and if the people want help, they can get them help. They provide jobs, they provide counseling services.”

And since that work began six weeks ago, police recorded one report of shots fired, and two drug-related calls outside the liquor store — but no reports of shootings or assaults.

“The root cause of the violence was just individuals that was standing out here,” Pollard explains. “Somebody will ride past him, and then they’ll come back here and they’ll shoot at him. If you’ve got nobody congregating here, who are you going to shoot at?”

Kizzie — a neighbor who didn’t share her last name, says she seen the changes — and feels safer.  

“There’s a big difference,” she says. “There’s nobody hanging on each of the corners. There’s not a lot of traffic, not a lot of drug transactions, cleaned up a little better.”

Pollard says his group has built relationships in the neighborhood going back years.

He says the approach is all about trust and engagement.

“We see somebody standing out there on the corner, what have you,” Pollard says. “Yeah, we go over and talk to ’em, what’s going on. Try to figure out if we can provide services for them.”

He says he has plans to buy the store and open an office inside, where people can get help looking for jobs or social services.

At Winner Gas — just across the street from Merwin, police records show officers have responded to multiple drug calls and a shooting since the AG’s investigation started,

But there are security guards on the property now.

They tell us they’ve been there about a month, and that illegal activity has dropped since they started.

“It was a process, but we are going in the right direction,” says Kela Felix, from the security firm Silverback Protection. “We get a lot of feedback from the community that we’re doing a good job.”

Felix says he, too, is trying to engage with those hanging around the area, especially young people.

“I’ve also been going as security,” he notes. “I went in as a big brother, a father, a mentor, because a lot of these young kids are kind of like fatherless, and they don’t have the proper guidance. Showing that we care about them, and take it from there, you know?”

Tapper, meanwhile, says there have been talks with Ellison’s office about the changes at Merwin.  

“We’re in discussions with him as we speak, and I think we’re all in agreement that what we’re doing is working,” she says. “That this actually is a solution to the problems that we’ve all been frustrated by.”

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Ellison’s office would only say the joint investigation with Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis remains open and active.  

We asked Tapper what her biggest hope is, with all of this.  

“That there’s peace in this corner,” she said. “That that corner can be as vibrant as it was when we started here 26 years ago.”