Some 500 concerned citizens — many angry — descended on a church in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul on Thursday night to vent frustrations with flash mob melees that can turn violent and other crimes.
They called for an increased police presence and response — and for parents to get a hold of kids who are running wild as “hangers-on” with older gang members.
Dozens of people lined up to complain of robberies, thefts and bands of roving young thugs who are taking over residents’ yards and in some cases even porches.
“We were beaten, dragged across the street,” neighborhood resident Leslie Moore said of an unprovoked attack on her family.
Danette Allrich, active in neighborhood block clubs, questioned why landlords aren’t being held responsible for allowing such gatherings on their properties.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, flanked by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and other leaders, responded that the city is trying to step up inspections of rundown and otherwise troublesome properties, among an array of strategies deployed in recent weeks.
“This is about acts that we won’t tolerate in our community,” Coleman said. “This is about acts that no community should tolerate.”
Fears have grown with the emergence of large groups of young people — as many as 40 or 50 — that form quickly on St. Paul’s East Side, with fights busting out and streets blocked.
“What you need to know,” the mayor said, “is that we stand together on all this. You have the top leadership of the city of St. Paul here.”
He said that includes not just elected officials, but department heads who are working with all parts of the community to figure out what needs to be done to stop the violent outbreaks from being repeated. .
Aided by technology
Police Chief Tom Smith told the crowd that the problems are part of a national phenomenon in which big flash mobs gather quickly with the help of cellphones and social media. He said that there have been six or seven large street fights since June 1.
“Technology is a good thing and a bad thing,” the chief said, holding up his cellphone, “where you can get 40 people to show up on a street corner because they use a device like this to tweet, or whatever they use, and to show up.”
Patrols have been added to the areas most prone to violence, police are meeting with community leaders and resources are being reallocated from other districts.
While officers are typically busy running from one 911 call to the next, Smith said his department is now dedicating 30 officers who do not have to respond to calls but can respond to the thuggish behavior that’s been erupting.
Smith said parents should be looking at the social media tools that their kids use, which is a proactive step that he insisted “could make a difference.”
He said the troublemakers are not all from the East Side — some come from Minneapolis — and they move back and forth across the river to gather for disturbances, some of which have turned violent, even deadly.
One 26-year-old man, a bystander trying to get home when he came upon a street fight begun by girls, is in critical condition after being jumped last week, and the crowd prayed for him and his family Thursday.
And a 17-year-old teen was shot to death in July after a fight just blocks away from the meeting. Police had broke up a big fight right before that in the same area.
Neighborhood resident Dale Kroc told angrily of how her grandson was jumped and attacked while walking home from a fireworks display. She told of the fear when she saw him at the hospital, his abdomen heaving.
“He was petrified,” she said. Nearby, the young man nodded, his face still scarred.
‘Where are the parents?’
Angry residents alike called for more responsibility on the part of parents. The police chief agreed.
“My thing, is where are the parents?” Smith said. “What is going on?”
Choi pledged Thursday to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law people who are taking part in the group violence.
The community meeting at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church represented a microcosm of the troubling violence confronting neighborhoods in many urban areas nationwide.
While street gangs have been around since the early 1900s, criminal justice experts have documented the steady growth of those with ties to shootings, drug trafficking and other crimes — as well as the rise of low-level, fairly unorganized of young people who form their own gangs, imitating older members of more established gangs.
The last is posing a new threat to East Siders, many say.