You might say that Joel Sandberg has been assigned to the Third Precinct all his life.
Having spent all of his 30 years on the force in the Third — that gritty pocket of southeast Minneapolis bounded by two highways, the Mississippi River and 62nd Street — the 52-year-old known to locals as “Joey” enjoys a reputation as the quintessential Minneapolis street cop, who got into the profession not out of a lust for the power that comes with the badge but because he cared about the neighborhood where he grew up.
Earlier this fall, he was inducted into the hall of fame of his alma mater, Roosevelt High School, an honor that school officials said was deserved as much for his devotion to the community as for the athletic prowess that earned him All-City honors in football and baseball.
The moment was a satisfying one for Sandberg, who made good on a childhood promise to give back.
“I’ve won my share of awards over time, but this time means the most to me, because it includes my whole 30 years of service,” said Sandberg, who these days is a sergeant in the precinct’s property crimes unit, but still works off-duty security at school sporting events and dances.
Friends and colleagues of Sandberg describe him as a tough but fair cop who understood the importance of forming personal relationships with people on the streets — even those he arrested — and winning their respect.
That familiarity has paid off countless times throughout the years, he says.
In one recent case, the good relationships he had established helped solve a string of burglaries in the area and led to the recovery of $14,000 worth of stolen property. In fact, Sandberg says, his cellphone has sounded countless times over the years with a tip from a longtime resident about a late-night break-in being planned in the neighborhood or the whereabouts of a suspect. When a theft occurs somewhere in the neighborhood, he usually can find out quickly who did the crime and where they can be found.
That also has led to awkward situations, when he was forced to arrest former students and even family members.
And while many of his colleagues have left the Third over the years for posts in other parts of the city, Sandberg turned down transfer after transfer because he wanted to stay close to his childhood home.
His role in the ethnically diverse school was one he relished: part cop, part social worker and Big Brother. Colleagues say Sandberg, who is white, was effective in gaining the trust of youths who are wary of adults in general — and police officers in particular — because he didn’t use his badge to intimidate others. Sandberg says he used to spend his days wandering the hallways, breaking up students’ spats with teachers or the occasional fight, but also talking with students, finding out about their lives and inquiring after their families.
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the union that represents the department’s rank-and-file officers, said Sandberg gained the respect of faculty and students alike for his non-adversarial approach. He is a better detective for it, Kroll said of Sandberg, as residents were willing to tip him off to criminal activity.
“He was well known within the precinct because it’s the community he came up in,” said Kroll, who worked with Sandberg on the same shift in the early 1990s.
A celebrated alumnus
In 2014, after 18 years on the job, his part-time position at Roosevelt was eliminated amid an ongoing debate about the role of police in schools.
In recent years, the cash-strapped school district has slashed the number of school resource officers, or SROs, from 23 to 16 in order to save money and partly out of a belief that in-school cops were accelerating the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” that critics say pushes mostly minority kids into the court system.
Sandberg disagrees, arguing that SROs can have a positive influence.
“I would use as little police enforcement [as possible] with these kids if I had to deal with them in that manner, because there are other ways to teach them right and wrong,” he said. Still, he adds, he moved out of Minneapolis after one too many nasty off-duty run-ins with people he had arrested
Sandberg said that some students had few positive interactions with police outside of school. In that way, he saw himself as something of an ambassador for the department.
School officials saw that, too.
Sandberg was inducted into the hall of fame in September, three years after the school established a community service award in his name — given annually to students who have demonstrated leadership potential. He was the youngest in a class of celebrated alumni that included a former Minneapolis mayor, an internationally known painter and the keyboardist for the Prince-engineered band, the Time.
“He takes the time to have conversations with kids. He’ll do little things,” said Dennis Stockmo, the school athletic director.
‘A huge favor’
During home football games, Stockmo says he often noticed Sandberg chatting up an older man throughout the night.
“Here’s a guy who pays six bucks and he talks to him [Sandberg] the whole time,” he said. Eventually, he ask the older man why he always stood by Sandberg. The man replied that Sandberg had “saved” his daughter when she was going through some hard times in high school.
As a boy growing up on the streets of what was then a predominantly Scandinavian neighborhood near 31st Avenue and 55th Street, Sandberg starred in baseball and football at Roosevelt, earning accolades and drawing the eye of college recruiters. It was there that he realized that he wanted to be a cop because he saw it as a profession in which he could help people, Sandberg says.
He first got hired with the park police, where he worked two years in the Third, before joining the city police force in 1987. He was again assigned to the Third Precinct, which was beset by crack-fueled violence.
Sandberg still stops by the same local hangouts, shooting the breeze with the cast of characters he has crossed paths with over the years. Some are students or parents of children he worked with at Roosevelt.
“They hated me at the time, but as they grew, matured and learned they said, ‘Hey, you were doing me a huge favor,’ ” he said.