Craig Schuebel had few options left when he couldn’t afford insulin for his aging, blind and diabetic dog, Sassy. He didn’t even have to ask when Greg Williams recently footed the $100 bill.
It’s one of the many courtesies Williams has done for residents at the Montreal Hi-Rise, a public housing building in St. Paul where he has lived for the past two years. But Williams is more than just a friend and neighbor — he’s also a St. Paul police officer who happens to live where he works.
He is one of 16 officers living in public housing as part of a long-running but still unique project undertaken by city officials.
“This uniform hasn’t always represented people in the right way,” Williams said. “It’s important for the community to know I’m human.”
Williams hosted his weekly coffee and doughnuts breakfast in the Montreal Hi-Rise community room on a recent morning. The conversation ranged from Williams’ vacation to Atlanta to sexual harassment scandals across the country.
Schuebel pointed to his right eye and talked about his recent cataract surgery. Next, he told Williams, was some dental work.
“I’ll take you out to a steak dinner then,” Williams said.
Police and public housing authorities say the officer-in-resident program, part of A Community Outreach Program (ACOP), builds relationships while preventing crime.
But data from the city show that the impact on crime is mixed. The rate of the most serious crimes — homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery, among others — per 100 residents in the city’s four public family housing developments was generally below the citywide average between 2007 and 2016. The rate in 16 public high-rises generally exceeded the citywide average in rape, robbery, aggravated assault and theft.
When combined, family housing developments and high-rises were below the citywide average in five of the past 10 years, including between 2014 and 2016. Numbers for 2017 were not available.
The numbers show that public housing bucks stereotypes, said Sgt. Kent Cleveland, who oversees ACOP out of an office at the McDonough Homes development.
“I think the perception of public housing is very rundown, high crime. … ” Cleveland said.
The PHA’s high-rises, family developments, duplexes, single-family homes and vouchers provide housing for more than 21,000 people.
ACOP started in 1991 as a police unit dedicated to patrolling public housing properties and addressing gang issues and is now staffed by Cleveland and nine officers who live off site. The officer-in-residence program was added in 1996 to place cops in each high-rise.
Officers live in high-rises rent-free but are required to observe an hour of office time each week, assist staff and provide outreach programming for tenants. That’s in addition to their regular duties outside of the buildings.
Jon Gutzmann, executive director of PHA, said the program is “very unusual” in the country.
“One of the things we’re really proud of is the relationship building,” said Kim Nguyen, assistant director for resident services at PHA. “People stop seeing them as police officers and more as individuals.”
Units provided to officers are old caretaker units not typically rented to the public, according to PHA authorities.
For all the benefit the right officer can bring to a high-rise, challenges persist, said Amy Seaman, a resident of the Montreal Hi-Rise. Residents are often slow to trust authority and report issues for fear of retaliation from other tenants or of losing their housing, she said.
“So many people here, this is the only thing between them and living under a freeway,” Seaman said. “They’re scared. Many of them get lost in the cracks.”
Williams, a 21-year veteran of the police department, replaced an officer two years ago who received lukewarm reviews from tenants. He said he chose to enroll in the program so he could live in the city and work with residents despite the constant demands.
“After a long day, when you get home … you just want to disconnect and relax,” he said. “But it’s ongoing here.”
Williams is a sounding board for everything from crime in the neighborhood to the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile by then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
“Last year, it was a difficult time. … ” Williams said. “People would come up to me with questions. People were skeptical.”
Montreal Hi-Rise residents and Williams hashed out their opinions at the weekly breakfast.
“He allowed the folks here who were upset, up in arms” to vent, Seaman said. “All he did was listen.”