Combating a surge in youth crime

Minneapolis Police, city officials target juvenile offenders

Squinting in the morning sun, the boy didn't say a word as police escorted him to a waiting squad car.

He was still wearing the gym shorts and T-shirt he had slept in. He looked tired.

The Minneapolis 15-year-old, whose name was not released by police because he is under 18, was wanted for possession of a dangerous weapon in school, claimed to run with a local gang and had a criminal history that included aggravated assault. He'd been hiding at his grandma's St. Anthony Village apartment for months, until Minneapolis Police Sgt. Ron Stenerson showed up at 8:15 a.m. on a recent weekday and arrested the youth right out of bed.

Stenerson leads a task force of police, U.S. marshals and Hennepin County probation officers charged with finding and arresting juveniles who have outstanding warrants. The group started scooping up wanted youth in June, a month after the Minneapolis Police Department resurrected its juvenile unit.

The efforts are part of the city's attempt to battle an increase in youth-committed crimes, which have helped fuel a citywide crime surge this year.

Filling a void

In April 2003, the Minneapolis Police Department's juvenile unit was disbanded because of budget shortfalls.

The cut eliminated staff focused on youth crime, decentralizing investigations and weakening links to social service programs aimed at keeping youth out of trouble. Holding juvenile offenders accountable had become less of a priority, said Minneapolis Police Lt. Bryan Schafer, who oversees the new unit.

Then juvenile offenses became more of a problem.

The number of youth aggravated assault and robbery suspects increased 52 percent, from 262 between January and July last year to 399 during the same period this year. Arrests of juveniles for those offenses increased 60 percent in that time period, jumping from 104 to 165.

The young offenders have contributed to a roughly 32 percent year-to-date increase in violent crimes, which include homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults and rapes.

&#8220We felt there was a tremendous need to get the juvenile unit reassembled,” Schafer said.

The unit consists of eight investigative sergeants pulled from other units and two support staff. Robberies, assaults and family violence are the group's focus. All juveniles arrested for such offenses are processed through the new unit, based in City Hall, and it serves as an informational hub with connections to schools and outreach programs.

Interim Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said it's just getting started.

&#8220I call it a limping juvenile unit,” Dolan said. &#8220They don't have the staff or resources they need yet.”

Dolan plans to add staff to extend the unit's 8 a.m.-8 p.m. operating hours to midnight. He's hoping for further expansion in the coming years and said it won't be disbanded again.

&#8220If it's working, we have to leave it alone,” he said.

Arrests of juveniles for robberies and aggravated assaults increased 115 percent during the unit's first two months of operation. The number of youth charged with those crimes has increased 50 percent over this time last year.

The recently created juvenile apprehension task force has contributed to the success.

Keeping the pressure on

Just before the juvenile unit began, Minneapolis Police worked with the U.S. Marshals Service on a weeklong aggressive search for wanted offenders.

The effort targeted adults, but Minneapolis probation officers also added 10 juveniles with warrants to the list. Six of them were arrested.

&#8220We talked about who was out looking for these juveniles regularly and found out there was a gap,” said Al Garber, U.S. marshal for the Minnesota district.

A couple months later, the task force, led by Sgt. Stenerson, who is assigned to the juvenile unit, started knocking on doors and picking up young fugitives a couple times a week.

Most of their arrests are made in North and South Minneapolis, he said. The group has made several arrests in the Cedar-Riverside area near Downtown and gone to Southwest a few times.

The task force is supposed to last 90 days, but Lt. Schafer said the team would continue to convene afterward.

&#8220We want to keep the pressure on,” he said.

Hennepin County Probation Officer Donna Gillitzer, who has participated in the sweeps, said juveniles are beginning to feel the pressure. Two young offenders recently turned themselves in because word spread about the task force, she said.

&#8220This is the first time kids are getting the message that people are going to come looking for you,” said Gillitzer, who has seen an uptick in juvenile gang and gun violence recently.

Probation officers are always trying to keep tabs on their clients, but their caseloads are often large and arrests usually require police assistance, said Gillitzer, who has 45 juvenile clients.

Christine Owens, acting director of juvenile probation for Hennepin County, said she tries to keep her 87 officers' caseloads around 35 clients apiece but many of them have more. The loss of six officers because of budget cuts in 2003 has made it difficult for the office to keep loads down.

The increase in juvenile crime has kept probation officers extra busy lately, she said.

&#8220But they can handle it,” she said. &#8220The staff here takes what comes to them.”

The juvenile unit and apprehension task force have strengthened communication between probation and police, Owens said. Gillitzer said the connection helps police find wanted juveniles and enables probation officers to get in touch with their clients more quickly.

&#8220The quicker we can get these kids into custody, the quicker we can get them back on track,” she said.

Getting back on track

Youth programs and job opportunities are critical for keeping juveniles out of trouble, Gillitzer said.

Such outlets have become harder to find in recent years. Minneapolis has lost roughly $36 million a year in state funding for city programs since 2003, said Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Recognizing the need for more positive youth activities, The Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support recently awarded $500,000 in grants for violence-prevention programs at organizations including Plymouth Christian Youth Center, Kwanzaa Community Church and Broadway High School.

Rybak and Chief Dolan's Safe City Initiative, launched in May, included expanded youth recreation programs and increased summer job opportunities. Minneapolis also offers free college tuition and career placement for high performing kids, with the hopes of keeping them on the right track.

&#8220We're trying to move the next generation in the right direction,” Rybak said.

Sgt. Stenerson will continue to seek out youth who aren't moving that way yet. He interviewed several people and showed up at two addresses before finding the 15-year-old, who was sleeping on his grandma's pullout bed.

&#8220He'll be held accountable for his criminal behavior,” Stenerson said. &#8220He can't continue to run.”

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