Major crime in Washington County declines, but new trends bring worries

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2013 - 4:09 PM

Heroin use continues to grow, and sex trafficking is under scrutiny. Those challenges lead the sheriff and county attorney to add resources to 2014 budgets.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput

Major crimes handled by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have declined by 20 percent since 2007 but growth in homicides, sex trafficking and heroin use have public safety leaders concerned.

Sheriff Bill Hutton and County Attorney Pete Orput, in separate budget presentations to the County Board last week, said they’re putting more investigative resources into building stronger cases against defendants in major crimes. They’ve also united with police departments and neighboring counties on crime initiatives as Washington County grows in population and crime edges east from the urban center of the metro area.

“Crooks don’t respect county borders, and we don’t either,” Orput said. “We’ll chase them anywhere.”

Violent crimes against people have fallen steadily in recent years in the 19 cities and townships patrolled by the Sheriff’s Office in part because of how police agencies share information about criminals and crime patterns, Hutton said. In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office tracked 739 such crimes, compared with 800 the year before.

Lesser crimes, such as prostitution, gambling and misdemeanor assault, have remained steady at about 3,100 a year, Hutton said, which he attributed to the county’s growth in population.

In addition to felony cases handled by the Sheriff’s Office, referrals for prosecution at the county attorney’s office also come from cities that have their own police departments, including Forest Lake, Stillwater, Oakdale, Woodbury and Cottage Grove.

Orput agreed with Hutton on the declining rate of violent crime in county jurisdictions, “although not in my office,” and the number of jury trials have multiplied, he told the County Board. That’s because his office is working hard on what he called the “investigative phase of prosecution” to help the Sheriff’s Office and city police firm up evidence against violent suspects, he said.

“We get an increase in crime because we’re not declining the number of cases we used to,” Orput said, referring to decisions to charge more crimes and prosecute them in front of juries.

Hutton and Orput spoke of troubling crime trends that appear on the upswing.

Hutton has warned repeatedly that heroin use is more common, leading to more overdoses, and now has been traced to children as young as 16. He has fought back with a drug takeback program that so far has collected 1,840 pounds of pharmaceuticals — legal drugs often used as “gateway” drugs to build a heroin dependency.

“We lose kids in the county every year, and if that doesn’t break our hearts I don’t know what does,” said Orput, a former east metro narcotics prosecutor. “When I get my hands on these drug dealers, I squeeze hard.”

Orput said his office is prosecuting more environmental and health-related crimes, while the rise of domestic violence in the county is worrisome, and child abuse seems more severe.

“The cases we’re seeing, at least anecdotally, are just terrible, they’re awful,” he said of child protection filings.

Homicides in recent years have been more frequent as well. In June, Orput personally prosecuted a murder case involving the robbery and stabbing of an Oakdale woman, and won.

The Sheriff’s Office will launch a new records management system early next year that links with eight police departments, two public safety departments, 12 fire departments and emergency medical services throughout Washington County. This is the first time all the agencies have shared a records database, Hutton said, which better helps them monitor and prevent criminal activity.

The third public safety budget presentation last week came from Tom Adkins, who oversees Community Corrections, the probation and parole component in Washington County.

He said one of his department’s success stories is the Sentence to Serve program, which supplied 85,961 hours of labor last year for the county, cities, and nonprofit agencies.

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