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'Operation Blue Wave' combats gangs in Minn.

In the wake of multiple youth crimes, 30 officers were added to patrol on bikes, motorcycles, horses, and in squads

By Richard Chin
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul police call it Operation Blue Wave. It means more cops on squad cars, motorcycles, bikes and horses in St. Paul's East Side, and fewer large congregations of unruly youths, according to police and some neighborhood residents.

It's been two weeks since police Chief Thomas Smith said he would add 30 police officers to patrol the East Side in the wake of the near-fatal beating of Ray Widstrand, an bystander set upon by members of a crowd of young people Aug. 4.

That incident, along with the fatal shooting of teen Vincent Allison, in what has been called a gang-related street brawl July 11 on Payne Avenue, has put residents of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood on edge.

They're worried that the large crowds of unruly youths they've been seeing congregating on the street this summer might erupt into violence again.

The police response: Flood the East Side with members of the department's Force units from the city's Western and Central districts. Force-unit officers specialize in dealing with problem properties and quality-of-life issues like drug dealing. They're execute search warrants, use informants and sometimes work in plainclothes or undercover.

Force-unit members work throughout the city, but they've been directed to concentrate in Payne-Phalen following the Widstrand assault.

"The Force units came in. They hit the groups hard," said Trish Englund, commander of the police department's Eastern District.

She said police are exercising "very low tolerance" of violations they see on the streets, which could include congregations that spill out into the road blocking traffic. Police also may stop people for riding a bike at night without a reflector or failing to cross the street at a crosswalk, Englund said.

"We want those kind of contacts," Englund said. She said the message the police want to send is, "We're here and we're watching."

Englund said police have targeted some "party houses" in the neighborhood for enforcement, and have brought in patrols of officers on bicycles and motorcycles.

"It's a presence. It's a deterrence. It's a force multiplier," she said.

Some residents say they have noticed more cops and fewer crowds hanging out on the streets.

"We've definitely seen the increase of police presence," said Payne-Phalen resident Sarah Murphy. "We've seen the officers on horses and on bikes.

"We never saw that before."

Murphy also said police seem to be "reacting more to the large groups of people we see."

For example, Murphy said, it was common to see 20 people hanging around the bus stop at Case and Payne avenues, with the crowd spilling into the street.

"It's not like they're all waiting for a bus," Murphy said. "We have small children. You worry that something's going to happen."

"I think everyone gets nervous when there are gang-bangers standing around, or kids just standing around causing trouble," said Helen Green, 47, a housepainter who lives in the Payne-Phalen area.

But Green said, "There are fewer crowds. I am seeing more police. ... You don't see people standing around anymore. It's not as scary anymore."

Murphy said, "I feel a little better that they're trying to deal with it more." But she added, "I still don't go out at night for a walk."

Police said they don't yet have statistics to show the impact of the extra policing. But Englund said she wouldn't be surprised if the operation results in a spike of offenses as increased police presence means more people have contact with police.

"Most people are satisfied with the extra attention to the neighborhood," said Leslie McMurray, executive director of the Payne-Phalen District Five Planning Council. But she said residents are concerned about what happens if the city can't keep up the extra enforcement.

"We're looking to a sustainable solution to a long-term problem in addition to enforcement," McMurray said.

"The police chief and the mayor were saying all the right things," Murphy said. "But the police, all they can do is put out fires. It's such a huge systemic problem. There's people raised with poverty and there's systemic problems that perpetuate it."

"It has to be more than the police that are doing something about it," Green said. Fewer bad landlords and more jobs for kids would be a good start, she said. "Give them something to hope for, something to go to."

Englund said police will be reevaluating the extra East Side patrols in mid-September.

"We know that sustainability is an issue" she said. "We can't keep all three Force units in the area."

But Englund said that, even after the extra patrolling ends, she plans to keep officers in the neighborhood dedicated to nuisance issues that have upset residents.

Copyright 2013 the Pioneer Press

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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