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As students returned to Minneapolis schools last fall, sixth-graders and freshmen weren't the only new faces in middle school and high school.
Minneapolis police officer William Kubes was there, too. After nine years patrolling, he took an assignment watching 500 12- to 15-year-olds at Northeast Middle School. He's one of 16 officers assigned to schools this year.
"I go home happy," said Kubes, who towers over most preteens but flashes frequent, mitigating smiles. "Just being in the schools can prevent tense situations from escalating."
After a five-year hiatus during which the park police handled city schools, Minneapolis cops are back. It's the newest prong of a concerted effort by the city to tamp down juvenile crime -- a push credited with reducing the crime rate in that category 29 percent from 2006 to 2008.
Partly by intervening in problems early and partly by handling less serious incidents in the schoolhouse rather than the courthouse, the new liaison program appears to be driving that rate down even further.
Police forwarded 117 assault and 182 disorderly conduct cases to the Hennepin County attorney's office in the 2007-08 school year. Through the first half of this school year, only 40 assault cases and 31 disorderly conduct cases were opened. That puts the district on pace for a 30 percent drop in such cases by year's end, said Lt. Bryan Schafer of the Police Department's juvenile division.
"We're doing things differently now," he said. "We're trying to decriminalize 'school' behavior."
The switch back to city police [they also provided liaisons from 1966 to 2003] had strong support from Mayor R.T. Rybak, Police Chief Tim Dolan and County Attorney Mike Freeman.
Officials say the park police weren't doing a bad job, but the officials thought city cops would be more plugged into the department's strategies and better situated to ask other divisions for help.
"It's a better link," Freeman said. "It's more seamless now. The schools, city of Minneapolis, the Police Department and the county attorney's office [are] all on the same page."
Said Craig Vana, the school system's associate superintendent for emergency management:
"In the past we would have to work with two agencies. The Park Police would contact the city police. It just wasn't as straightforward. Now we're in direct contact with the juvenile division."
That, he said, has led to more early warnings about problems in surrounding neighborhoods -- some gang-related -- before they spill into the schools.
Liaisons meet with administrators at least once a month to discuss problems and strategies. They also attend teacher conferences to meet parents and have been known to act as sounding boards for teens who want to talk about college and careers.
"People think, 'Oh, they've got an officer in the school -- it must be a rough school,' but that's not the case," said officer Keia Pettis, who's at Patrick Henry High in north Minneapolis. "It's more of a community-policing type of deal. When they need us, we're there."
Schafer, supervisor of the liaisons, said the strategy doesn't mean turning a blind eye to egregious crimes. But in the past, he said, the county attorney's office was inundated by juvenile disorderly conduct cases from school fights.
A diverse pool of officers
Kubes splits his time between Northeast Middle and three nearby elementary schools. Northeast Principal Padmini Udupa said he's a great role model. Many students know he was among more than 60 city officers deputized as a U.S. marshal during the inauguration of President Obama.
A critical part of the city's liaison strategy was hiring a diverse pool of officers committed to working with youth. About half are women and minorities, and others have special skills such as fluency in Spanish or Hmong.
Kubes says his psychology degree has come in handy in his interactions with students. Pettis is a black woman with three years in the department. She graduated from Henry in 2001.
"My old softball coach is [still] here," Pettis said. "I jumped on this because I wanted to see another avenue of policing."
Pettis said working at Henry means some teens gradually come to see her and other officers as regular people rather than as a menacing presence with a badge, a gun and a squad car.
"I've seen it work," Pettis said. "The kids don't shut down as easily [when a crisis arises], and it's easier to help."
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395