As the St. Paul squad cars pulled up to the large house on Cleveland Avenue, young people streamed out of the back and front doors before hustling down the block and away from potential trouble.
Inside, party detritus littered the house: dozens of red plastic cups, liquor bottles, sticky, wet floors. As several officers fanned through the house to find the college student hosts of the party, a young woman — barely conscious — sat sprawled on a couch on the porch.
Then, there was a knock on the porch door. “Um, is the party over?” asked a young man who’d arrived a bit too late.
“Good guess, thanks for playing,” said Sgt. Mary Brodt, prompting the University of St. Thomas student to beat a hasty retreat.
This was the work of the St. Paul Police Zero Alcohol Providers (ZAP) detail, which zeroes in on the neighborhoods surrounding the five colleges in the city’s western half to discourage out-of-control parties, underage drinking and the noise and general bedlam that can follow.
“This goes to the whole quality-of-life thing,” said Sgt. Mark Ficcadenti, a 37-year police veteran and leader of the detail. “These are the things that can really drive the neighbors crazy.”
If anything, some neighbors would like to see more patrols. There have been parties with hundreds of inebriated students that have been allowed to continue, some say. And the neighbors have the videos posted online to prove it.
“ZAP is seasonal, and they only pick certain big weekends,” said Kristina Lemon, who has lived in a four-block area directly north of the University of St. Thomas’ main campus for four years and has seen many huge, unruly gatherings. “I think it’s a great tool, but they need to use it more often.”
Working with neighbors
ZAP started 17 years ago to address the dangers associated with underage drinking and related issues in rental housing around the colleges — University of St. Thomas, Hamline University, Macalester College, St. Catherine University and Concordia University-St. Paul. Five or six officers are assigned to each detail over several weekends each spring and summer. As Ficcadenti said on a recent Friday night: “We’re the party patrol, the wet blanket squad.”
Police meet monthly with college officials to review calls for service, and students who are caught holding parties where underage drinking occurs can face school discipline as well as a ticket under the city’s social host ordinance, which the City Council passed in 2009.
The social host ordinance targets the person who hosts the party where underage drinking occurs. The maximum penalty is a $700 fine and up to nine days in jail. In 2015, St. Paul police issued 36 social host citations. So far in 2016, police have issued five.
Police keep track of properties they have been called to before, Ficcadenti said. They work to develop relationships with landlords, college officials and renters. They aren’t just driving around looking for students to arrest.
“We don’t poke the bear,” he said. “If you have a few kids being quiet in a living room, no one cares about you.”
Neighbor Lemon said police do a good job of working with tenants and neighbors. But she said landlords, too, need to become a bigger part of the solution and put more into leases about what will and won’t be tolerated.
She added: “There are always going to be bad apples, but there has to be a more effective way to stop this.”
St. Thomas has a full-time neighborhood liaison, Amy Gage, who gets weekly reports from the university’s public safety office and police. Neighbors have varying degrees of frustration, she said. Some want to get to the know the students and be proactive, and the university has launched programs to educate student renters, as well as a neighborhood ambassador program.
Lemon is skeptical, saying it sometimes seems the university is more interested in public relations than solving the problems.
But Gage said, “We take this very seriously.”
‘Have you been drinking?’
It is a cool Friday night during graduation season and the ZAP officers meet at 10 p.m. in the Western District Office to go over their plans for the night. They have a list of properties where they’ve been before.
Before heading out, Sgt. Matt Koncar goes over the questions officers should ask: “Have you been drinking? How much have you had to drink? Where do you go to school?”
The night is mostly quiet.
Ficcadenti stops at a house on Grand Avenue; a neighbor called to say the young men there were loudly “play fighting.” Later, he rolls slowly past a couple houses near Hamline University, where a handful of students are congregating outside.
“How’s it going?” he asks one. “Just keep it down, OK?”
Then, after midnight, a call comes about a large and loud party near St. Thomas. Police arrive, partygoers scatter. Ficcadenti talks to two female St. Thomas students — one a senior, the other a sophomore — who hosted the party. An ambulance is called for the freshman girl on the porch. She was tagged for underage drinking, Ficcadenti said.
“We don’t want to come back here. We don’t want to hear so much as a peep,” he tells the hosts, who promise no more trouble. “This here, this could be a problem for you. She’s sick and guess who that can come back on? You.”
A St. Thomas public safety officer is also there, and tells the women that the university will get a copy of the police report and that the Dean of Students office will contact them.
Gage said the school is dedicated to addressing the neighborhood issues.
“We are a very strong supporter [of ZAP]” she said. “It is targeting social hosts. It is one tool we are trying to use, to get the student tenants of a property to understand that while you may be legal and you may be sober, if there is someone underage on your porch, in your yard or on your garage roof, you can be held responsible.”