St. Paul takes East Side kids under its wing

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE and
  • April 22, 2012 - 9:34 PM

Two nights earlier, the community had gathered on St. Paul's East Side to talk about kids and curfews, and now here they were on Case Avenue, cops issuing commands and juveniles -- 50-plus by most accounts -- courting trouble near the midnight hour.

Officers barked their warnings over a PA system as kids moved at a snail's pace down the street. In the end, police would arrest about 25 juveniles for curfew violations.

So why were all those kids there on April 14, a Saturday night? Nowhere in the police reports was there an answer, police spokesman Howie Padilla said.

Soon, however, the answers may be easier to come by.

For the next six months, police, prosecutors and others are embarking on a crime-fighting initiative tailored specifically to the East Side and its juvenile curfew violators.

The project was developed at the behest of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which chose three cities -- Mesa, Ariz., and Newport News, Va., being the other two -- to devise community-policing strategies that the group hopes can be used as national models.

St. Paul police and the Ramsey County attorney's office zeroed in on the curfew law after a recent survey revealed that 71 percent of East Side respondents felt unsafe after dark.

The curfew ordinance requires kids 15-and-under to be home by 10 p.m., and 16- and 17-year-olds to be home by midnight. Police will continue citywide enforcement, but juveniles picked up within an East Side area bounded by Interstate 35E, Maryland Avenue, Earl Street and Minnehaha Avenue now can expect special treatment -- a coordinated effort to learn more about their home lives and to try to get them on track.

The project plans to take a holistic approach by improving the home environment and making one-on-one contact with parents.

"A lot of the times, I can't help a kid until I help the family," said Joel Franklin, a program manager with St. Paul Youth Services.

Choi, Smith optimistic

"We want to use the law in a positive way," County Attorney John Choi told families at a kickoff event at the Salvation Army Community Center on Payne Avenue on April 12.

As part of the project, St. Paul Youth Services, a non-profit group that has worked with at-risk youth for more than 35 years, plans to have a staff member visit a juvenile's home the day after a child has been cited for a curfew violation.

Terrea Adams, who lives in the area and attended the Salvation Army event, said that the program was a "real good idea" in that it would help promote understanding among neighbors. She expressed concerns, too, about kids who hung out near Wilder playground bullying other kids who are practicing as part of the Lower East Side Football Association.

Police Chief Thomas Smith, already aware of the playground issues, told her that plans were underway to have more officers stop at Wilder. The chief referred, too, to the serious crimes that have hit the East Side. But, like Choi, Smith sounded positive notes, primarily.

He emphasized the turnaround nature of the curfew-enforcement project and made mention, too, of the three times he had been placed in the rear of a squad car -- once for a curfew violation.

"I care about kids," Smith said. "Even young people that make mistakes."

East Side change

In generations past, the East Side was known for cultivating the likes of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger and hockey hero Herb Brooks. Today, at least two Ramsey County District judges -- Gregg Johnson and Teresa Warner -- have East Side roots.

Last month, Johnson returned to speak to the Payne Phalen District Five Planning Council as part of a meeting during which the new police project was mentioned. A handout provided by police Cmdr. Jill McRae -- detailing crime activity across the city's 17 planning districts between March 8 and 14 -- illustrated the challenges facing the neighborhood. There, at the top, with 48 incidents, was the Payne-Phalen area.

For the curfew project, which begins in May, prosecutors and police selected a six-grid area considered to be a crime hotspot.

St. Paul Youth Services will dedicate one staff member to contacting parents. Parents will be asked to stop by the organization's office for an intake evaluation with their child.

Each juvenile is to be assessed as low-, medium- or high-risk based on questionnaires completed by the parent and child. Diversion programs for low-risk youth will include 15 hours of community service and a final "family circle" event with other youth and parents.

Medium- and high-risk youth will be enrolled in a series of programs, some with other non-profits such as Youth in Transition and Save Our Sons and other organizations, Franklin said. Details on that curriculum are being ironed out.

Counselors also will be available for parents needing help with mental health, housing or chemical dependency issues.

First-hand experience

For three years, McRae was a sergeant in the police department's juvenile unit. She recalls the Monday mornings when she would arrive to work to a multitude of calls from parents saying: "We had a tough weekend. We need help."

"My heart went out to them," she said as she sat in the Eastern District's community room.

There, on April 14, officers set up a temporary curfew center to process juvenile offenders and to summon parents to bring them home. McRae said she had no idea why so many kids converged on the streets that night.

She guessed some might say: "Because I can. Nobody cares."

Soon, authorities expect to get answers on such matters. • 612-875-0041 • 612-270-4708

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