A chronic problem

Whittier and Stevens Square leaders work with city to curb nuisance crime

Chronically present prostitutes, trespassers, loiterers, aggressive panhandlers, and other offenders are becoming well known in the Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhoods.

They have become familiar with offenders like Darryl Brooks, whom police have arrested 18 times since 2004 for loitering, narcotics and other nuisance crimes. As of a couple weeks ago, Brooks was out in the community with a few warrants for yet another arrest.

“He’s still hanging around, asking for money to buy chicken wings,” said Minneapolis Probation Officer Jean Schwalen at a recent Law Enforcement Group (LEG) meeting.

The group, made up of Whittier and Stevens Square residents, probation and police officers, and a city attorney, meets every other week to discuss the status of roughly 20 chronic offenders who have been placed on a “clean list.” The list was created about a year ago to identify, track and get tougher sentences for repeat offenders of nuisance crimes in the 5th Precinct.

The list’s detailed history of each offender provides prosecutors with more ammunition in the courtroom, as does information from community members and police who are recognizing offenders more regularly.

The collaboration isn’t putting away chronic offenders forever, but it’s getting them off the streets for longer periods of time.

Making the ‘Clean List’

Estanilao Villasenor-Partida was walking home with his young daughter, nephew and two nieces in the Whittier neighborhood on a recent Monday evening when he came across Minneapolis Police Officer Scott Downing arresting a man who had just finished urinating on Los Amigos market and restaurant.

The man was also drinking alcohol in public.

“We don’t want the kids to see that,” Partida said. “It’s not a good example for the kids.”

Nuisance crimes usually are not life threatening, but community members say they erode a neighborhood’s image and attract other criminal activity. Whittier and Stevens Square see more chronic offenders of nuisance crimes than any other 5th Precinct neighborhood.

Josie Shardlow, community organizer for the Whittier Alliance and LEG participant, said chronic offenders are intimidating to residents, and crimes like trespassing or drinking in public can be more harmful than they might appear.

“They’re not just people on the sidewalk,” she said. “Whenever you have people drinking, you have loitering, litter and one thing leads to another.”

Though roughly 20 offenders are on the clean list, many others are not. The list is reserved for the most chronic offenders, and several qualifications such as more than 20 arrests or suspect entries in the Minneapolis Police Department computer system – three of which are nuisance crimes in the 5th Precinct – have to be met before an individual is listed.

Dave Delvoye, safety and outreach coordinator for the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), has kept an informal list of offenders in his neighborhood for the past five years.

He recently compiled a list of 61 offenders who have been arrested five or more times in the area between Jan. 1, 2004 and June 14, 2006. One offender was arrested 30 times.

“I am personally acquainted with about 50 of them,” said Delvoye, who often sees chronic offenders during block patrols with other Stevens Square residents. “We see each other on the street every day.”

Delvoye doesn’t call the police when he sees a chronic offender unless the person is breaking the law or has an active warrant. The clean list and LEG meetings help residents stay up to speed on who the offenders are; what they have been arrested for; and whether they are incarcerated, were recently released or have outstanding warrants.

Police officers also follow the information closely and know exactly whom to look for and where to find them.

On the beat

Officer Downing pulled his squad car up to St. Stephen’s Church at 22nd Street and Clinton Avenue South on a recent evening to chat with a man who was hanging out near the building.

Nonprofit organization Loaves and Fishes prepares free food for the homeless at the church, and it’s a popular spot for chronic offenders around dinnertime, Downing said.

He spoke to the man on the sidewalk to find out who he was and what he was up to – he often does that with suspicious people or known offenders so he knows whom to look for later in his shift. The man wasn’t breaking the law, so Downing left him alone.

“Make a mental note of that guy,” he said, driving away from the church. “We’re going to see him again.”

Sure enough, Downing saw him again less than an hour later in a different area, walking and drinking a beer. Downing issued a citation.

The man wasn’t on the clean list, but the nuisance crime he committed was very familiar to Downing, who deals almost solely with those offenses and often with the same offenders. He is one of six beat officers, seven community response officers and five directed-patrol officers working to address the chronic offenders problem in the 5th Precinct, said Insp. Kristine Arneson.

Downing said he confronts chronic offenders during each shift. Many of them are homeless, unemployed and have drug problems or mental health issues, he said. If they aren’t incarcerated, they’re in the community. He tries to get them off the street when he can to at least give neighborhoods some temporary relief.

“These people are out there every day, all day,” he said. “They’ve got to do something with their time, and oftentimes it isn’t positive.”

Wesley Clark Jr., who was on the clean list for years before turning his life around a couple years ago, said many chronic offenders trespass because they need a place to go. They might drink in a park because they have nowhere else to drink.

When he was a chronic offender, drugs controlled his life, he said.

“It takes a strong individual to break that cycle,” Clark said.

Chronics in the system

Minneapolis community probation officer Bobbi Lane said most chronic offenders don’t know how to break the cycle.

She and probation officer Schwalen get to know offenders and work with them to find ways off the street, but offenders can sometimes opt for a workhouse or jail sentence over being assigned a probation officer, and they often do, Lane said.

“Our chronic offenders know the system better than most people,” she said.

Both the jail and workhouse give offenders a chance to clean up and find treatment, she said, but it’s not long before they’re back on the street.

A typical sentence for loitering, for instance, might be two days in jail for someone not on the clean list, said Assistant City Attorney Lisa Godon. An offender on the list might get 30 to 90 days in jail for the same offense because of the detailed histories prosecutors keep of those individuals, but all sentences automatically receive a one-third reduction if an offender is “good.”

Most usually are, Godon said.

Hennepin County Community Court Judge Richard Hopper said 95 percent of all cases in the criminal justice system are plea bargained. That moves offenders through the system quickly, bypassing the long court process, but it also results in sentences that are shorter than the maximum.

Hopper said when sentencing, he takes into consideration prior convictions and the nature of the offense. An offender on the clean list doesn’t automatically recieve a longer sentence, he said.

A team of five prosecuters, including Godon, use the list’s information, along with community impact statements, as a tool to get longer sentences, he said. Godon said in general, the list and community input has helped get offenders off the streets longer.

Godon said the prosecution team grew from four to five within the last couple months and is planning to add more offenders to the clean list soon.

At a recent LEG meeting, community and police officers mentioned several offenders that might qualify.

“That’s what really makes it work,” Inspector Arneson said. “All those people coming together in collaboration.”

Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and [email protected].