Eastern District police hoping to avoid repeat of last summer

New community policing unit created to beat the heat

Starting Tuesday, April 15, the St. Paul Police Department’s Eastern District sent out a newly formed afternoon crew of four officers dubbed the “Community Response Team.”

Eastern District Senior Commander Joe Neuberger says the concept for the team is “in a way pretty old-school” -- the group will basically be hybrid beat officers.

They’ll be keeping an eye on trouble spots in the afternoons and working into the night. They’ll sometimes be dressed in regular officer uniforms, sometimes in raid gear, and sometimes in plain clothes, depending on the situation.

They’ll also have flexible hours, allowing them to adjust according to tips they hear, or other factors.

“It gives them the flexibility to properly mirror or interact with whoever they’re dealing with,” Neuberger explained.

The four dedicated officers, supplemented by overtime officers, won’t be first-responders to calls. Rather they’ll patrol the avenues, getting to know individuals and maintaining a firm presence in areas that have been identified as trouble areas.

The underlying idea, Neuberger said, is to avoid the types of heightened violence that plagued Payne Avenue last summer.

Though there were numerous incidents, the brutal Aug. 4 beating of Ray Widstrand and the July 11 murder of 17-year-old Vincent Arron Allison stand out as incidents that troubled neighbors and brought greater attention to issues of crime in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

Both incidents were tied to gang activity.

Following those incidents and an uproar from residents and local businesses, the Eastern District put together a huge boost in patrols for the remainder of the summer, calling it “Operation Blue Wave.”

“Blue Wave was a real quick, rapid response to reassure the East Side citizens that we were here,” said Neuberger.

The new beat officers are an extension of that, he said, adding that the Community Response Team comes out of a learning process that followed Blue Wave.

“The CRT guys are a hybrid of (Blue Wave) -- the intent is to get onto it before we need this mass group of (officers) to come in and establish control.”

Coming out of the summer, he talked with officers in the Eastern District and came away with this: “they wanted to try something a little bit different” and have a dedicated team to keep the summer safe. The team will be on top of already existing curfew enforcement policies from previous summers.

He relates it to the “broken windows theory” -- “if you fix the little stuff before it becomes big stuff, it’s much easier to repair,” he said.

So it won’t be all about enforcement for the Community Response Team. Rather, it’ll be a blend of enforcement, outreach and community engagement, he said.

The four officers will work afternoons starting at 4 o’clock, working into the evening, which matches up with last summer’s crime patterns, Neuberger said. The hours will, however, be flexible, so the officers can adjust to patterns of activity.

Leslie McMurray, director of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the department’s new initiative matches what residents in Payne-Phalen say they need.

“The feedback we’ve had from residents all along was that they appreciate increased police presence in the area,” she said. “It does bring a level of security to the area.”

She also lauded the amount of detail included in the plan. “I think they have heard the community, that the community wants safe streets and safe neighborhoods,” she said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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