As he stood at the front of the Dayton's Bluff Recreation Center auditorium, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith confided to the audience, many of whom were kids, that he had seen his share of squad car back seats when he was young.
To cut down on youth having the same negative experiences with law enforcement, police and their partners tried a different approach last year by trying to learn more about the home lives of some East Side teens. Authorities say the program was so successful in its inaugural trial that the city is expanding to more of the East Side and some of Frogtown as part of a Safe Summer Initiative.
The program targeted youth who at times would roam the streets in groups as large as 20 or 30 past curfew.
"Listen, I was young once, believe it or not, and if I was out late at night with that many people, I probably should not have been there," Smith said.
Out of the 159 kids who were picked up last summer on the East Side for breaking curfew laws and placed into a diversion program, only 11 were picked up again, he said.
Thirteen percent of East Side residents who filled out surveys before the program started said they felt safe after dark. According to preliminary data after the program, that number jumped to 20 percent.
Another positive sign is that the people who said they felt unsafe after dark dropped from 71 percent to 65 percent. There had been other people who said they felt neither safe nor unsafe.
St. Paul was one of three cities, including Mesa, Ariz., and Newport News, Va., in which new community-policing strategies were being piloted at the direction of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
When kids were caught breaking curfew rules in the target area last year, they typically were brought to the Ramsey County Curfew Center, said Erica Schumacher, the director of strategic initiatives and community relations with the Ramsey County attorney's office.
The next day St. Paul Youth Services, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth, would follow up with a home visit to see if they could provide resources for the family, Schumacher said.
"The whole goal is to see if we can be more proactive instead of just reactive," she said.
Leslie Hiber, who has lived on the East Side for almost a decade, went to the meeting with her two children. Hiber said there have been some issues on her block with groups of young people congregating during the summer and making noise and possibly engaging in theft. Despite the troubles, Hiber said it was better for police to find ways to keep youth out of the system.
"I think that's great," she said, of the program. "I think you need to work with kids."
The area that the program will encompass on the East Side is bounded by Interstate 35E, Maryland Avenue, Earl Street and expand to 3rd Street to include some of the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood.
The program will also be implemented in Frogtown and the Summit-University neighborhood bounded by Lexington Parkway, Minnehaha Avenue, Western Avenue and Interstate 94."We just want to make sure we have the best summer possible," said City Council Member Melvin Carter III, who said public safety is one of the largest concerns for residents.
Tuesday there will be a community meeting about the program at Maxfield Elementary School starting at 5:30 p.m.