Officer Tony Spencer and his partner spend much of their day knocking on doors. On the front lines of St. Paul’s fight against gang violence, the officers check regularly on young people with gang ties to not only learn about crime but also to try to help those they can break out of the dangerous lifestyle. “You have any new ink on you?” Spencer and his partner, officer Matt St. Sauver, asked a 23-year-old man who has a history with gangs after his sister’s vehicle was shot up by gang members.
The man doesn’t have a job, and his mother is often away from home “on vacation.” He says he has “no problems with nobody,” but the officers aren’t buying it. After talking about the incident, Spencer gives the man his cellphone number and tells him to call him whenever he wants.
“You got to get to these kids early because once they are in the vacuum, they are gone,” Spencer said.
The Violence Intervention and Prevention project, or VIP, is the latest tool that police and community nonprofits hope will keep troubled young people connected to social services and offer alternatives to street crime.
The project, which starts Friday, already has lofty goals of lowering disproportionate police contact with minority youths by 20 percent and reducing serious crimes committed by juveniles by the same percentage.
One major goal: Bring five youths that go through intervention into the fold and ultimately have them become police officers.
Last year, police made contact with young people 3,282 times; 627 of those were for serious crimes.
City gang violence has taken center stage the past few months. The death of 17-year-old Vincent Allison, murdered by another 17-year-old in a gang dispute, was one of the first tragic reminders in a relatively quiet summer of the problems with young people involved in gangs.
Later that month, alleged members of the H.A.M. Crazy gang and their affiliates, the East Side Boyz, assaulted a 26-year-old man as he was walking late at night in the same Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
Earlier this month, near Payne and Maryland Avenues, a man’s fingers were dislocated after five teenagers believed to be East Side Boyz members allegedly stomped on his hands and stole $20.
Spencer said it’s frustrating not being able to keep some youths out of prison.
“Even our ones that are doing heinous, heinous [stuff] out there, putting bats beside people’s heads, you talk with these kids one-on-one, you will find something redeemable about every one,” Spencer said.
Incarceration has its limitations, St. Paul police Chief Tom Smith told a roomful of community stakeholders this month. “We cannot arrest our way out of all the problems that exist in the inner city,” Smith said.
The VIP project means that instead of tagging some young people for minor, nonviolent offenses, St. Paul police officers will refer them to the YWCA in St. Paul. It will then assess and connect the troubled youth to the myriad services that are available.
Some of those services include Neighborhood House — which operates the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program (GRIP), where current or potential gang members can receive one-on-one mentoring — and 180 Degrees, which provides youth and adult services.
“If they have done something wrong, we have to see what’s going on in their lives,” said Joanna Lowry, GRIP specialist at Neighborhood House.
Lowry said that the VIP project is a welcome addition and that it would help get all the community stakeholders who interact with troubled kids on the same page. Police say it will also just make it easier for youth and their families.
“There’s a lot of services available for these kids and you have these families in crisis, but they don’t know where to turn because there’s no single access point,” said Sgt. Mark Reding, who also works in the gang unit.
Keeping youth involved once they are connected to services is a challenge. A couple of years ago, gang unit officers met with families of members in the 18th Street gang to offer them services, and at first the intervention worked.
But after a couple of months, some of the youth and their families became disengaged and police re-encountered some offenders on the streets. Police attributed this to the fact that the family’s other needs weren’t being addressed, such as transportation, housing and jobs.
With the VIP project, if there is a sign of trouble, such as the young person disconnecting from services, stakeholders could be alerted to try to reconnect them.
“We have splintered our work for a long time. Now it’s time for us to come together,” Smith said.
The VIP program will target young people citywide. Although recent incidents have occurred on the East Side, gang violence needs to be tackled throughout St. Paul, said Billy Collins, executive director of the YWCA in St. Paul.
“If you suffocate the flame over here, it’s going to spread over there,” Collins said.
The project is made possible by a two-year grant of $196,000 from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Justice Programs. The funds have not yet been approved by the City Council. The department had previously applied for the grant.
“I don’t want to have the image out there in the community that we have gone soft, because we’re not,” Spencer said of the program. “I think it’s definitely working smarter, not harder.”