Several policing and community initiatives this summer are turning parts of St. Paul’s East Side into a crime-fighting incubator.
This month alone, a new drop-off center is being developed for young people who break curfew, and police have kicked off a series of weekly community barbecues to help build stronger ties to neighborhoods. Police also have made strategic changes to East Side crime fighting efforts to stop trouble before it escalates.
“A lot of these things seem to be born here,” Matt Toupal, the new senior commander of the police’s Eastern District, said of the crime fighting strategies.
There’s good reason for that. In recent years, parts of the East Side have been scarred by high-profile crime that has contributed to negative perceptions of some of its neighborhoods. Last summer, residents demanded a greater police presence after a deadly shooting of a teenager and a near-fatal beating of a man by a group of young people in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
Even with the new programs, some of the negative perceptions attached to the East Side still stick, Toupal said. But, he added, things are getting better and the district is heading in the right direction.
“It’s all to try to get some of these kids and young adults … on the right track and work with them to change some of the perception that’s been taking place here on the East Side,” Toupal said.
Dressed in a hard hat and bright orange vest, Dick Gardell surveyed a yet-to-be-finished room that will serve as a drop-off center on E. 7th Street for kids who break curfew.
The center, dubbed the Connections Center, is part of the Safe Summer Initiative, a curfew enforcement program on the East Side in which youthful violators are picked up and connected to case management services to steer them from trouble.
“Our staff are going to be located right here so we can do the intake work,” said Gardell, president of 180 Degrees, a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth and adults. He pointed to where things will go when the center opens, he hopes, in early August.
The center will operate 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through the summer. Kids picked up for breaking curfew will be taken to the center and screened to see if they need services as they wait to go home.
While the Connections Center is being finished, other offices at 180 Degrees are being used as a drop-off spot.
Knocking on doors
“This is in lieu of probably spending time at the police department or some other location where they would be held until a parent or guardian picked them up,” Gardell said.
Earlier this month, Sgt. Jennifer Corcoran knocked on doors in the Battle Creek neighborhood to tell residents how they can better connect with police through another new summer program —the Safe Summer Night project.
The program, which starts this month on the East Side and rotates throughout the city through summer, consists of weekly community barbecues with police, who hope that some burgers and brats and a little socializing will help build stronger community relationships.
“I’m one of the patrol sergeants,” Corcoran said as she introduced herself to a resident from the doorstep. “We’re just handing out fliers. It’s to bring police and the community together.”
David Winter, 45, who lives near the Conway Recreation Center, said he has called police several times this spring to report trouble, such as young people fighting.
“I think this will help prove that police are on our side,” he said of the barbecue block parties.
Earlier this spring, the department’s Eastern District launched a Community Response Team (CRT), made up of four officers and a sergeant, to better respond to lower-profile crime before it escalates. The team was set to operate through the summer.
But Toupal said he decided to reallocate funds to help pay overtime costs so that all officers in the district, not just CRT officers, can focus on defusing serious crime. It’s more an expansion of the CRT concept than a disbanding of the team, he said.
“It’s going to be all our responsibilities,” Toupal said.
Sitting one afternoon in a meeting room at the Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center, Steve Randall discussed what needs to be done to resolve some of the East Side’s crime issues, particularly with young people. Randall, who works for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, also helps East Side community ambassadors mentor teens and intervene with youth.
More jobs are needed for young people who want to get on the right path, he said.
“You are sending us out there to talk to these kids to say ‘Do something else,’ and they’re going to say, ‘[Like] what?’ ” he said.
Randall said that young people need to have more of a say about the services and programs they need. At the same time, he added, people should be more accepting of youth. “The kids need an opportunity to change perceptions,” he said.
Robin Hickman, CEO of SoulTouch Productions, agrees. She is launching a program this summer tentatively called YouthVoices East Side, in which black teenagers living on the East Side will have an opportunity to create their own media projects to depict their lives and communities.
“I believe that when they lift their voices up it will give us all hope because we will begin to see them as contributors,” Hickman said. “They need a vehicle to express that they are valuable and they can make valuable contributions to building the community.”