St. Paul targets downtown drug dealing

Bus stop cameras
St. Paul police say cameras installed at downtown bus stops were critical to building cases against about 100 drug dealers.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Police say success in combating drug dealing in other parts of the city pushed the problem downtown, specifically to bus shelters, which Police Chief John Harrington says became open markets for marijuana and crack.

"Not only was there a significant amount of drug trafficking going on in the downtown area, but even more alarming was the intimidation or incipient violence being displayed," he said

This is the beginning of the end of the open-air drug market in downtown St. Paul.

Harrington says citizens have regularly complained of being fearful about walking along the streets and using the bus stops.

To combat the growing problem, Harrington says St. Paul police teamed up in March with the Minnesota Gang Strike Force, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and Metropolitan Transit police to go undercover for what they called "Operation Shamrock."

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"Over the course of the next three months, well over 100 cases have been made against individuals in that area, and approximately 20 to 25 percent have already been brought into custody," Harrington said. "This is the beginning of the end of the open-air drug market in downtown St. Paul." The operation consisted of about 15 undercover St. Paul officers buying drugs in broad daylight at bus shelters and street corners nearby. Police say nearly 90 percent of the transactions are on videotape.

Harrington says cops were surprised to find that initial expectations of who the dealers would be didn't pan out.

"We were under the impression that these were most likely juvenile criminals," he said. "And what we were a little alarmed and shocked to find was to find these were older criminals, in their 30s. They were not bus riders, they were driving to downtown, getting out of their car to sell dope, then getting back in their car and driving away."

According to police, the suspects had staked their turf by claiming different downtown bus stops. Police heard anecdotally, but couldn't confirm, that some dealers were charging admission to transit riders to enter bus shelters.

St. Paul Building Owners and Managers director Curt Milburn says his organization's members took part in the operation by installing cameras around downtown. He praised the police for the success of the operation.

"This was a proactive move, we're very proud of the work that you've done," Milburn said. "And we're going to start talking about filling up those streets. We've got the Republican National Convention coming soon. We're very excited. We're dressing up St. Paul to get ready for that. We've got so many businesses that are cleaning up, preparing."

Those arrested face charges including drug possession and selling narcotics.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner's office will be prosecuting the cases. She likens the streets of downtown St. Paul to a front porch to the city.

"And we really need to make sure that that front porch is a welcoming place, a comfortable place, a safe place," Gaertner said. "And I think this operation will go a long way toward making the streets a place where people can use our transit, do commerce, and enjoy the wonderful things that downtown St. Paul has to offer."

Police say they expect the sweep to have a dramatic impact on drug crimes downtown.

Depending on each suspect's criminal background, they could serve a long sentence or no jail time at all and be back on the streets in a day or so.

While cases are pending, each suspect will be under what's called a "stay away order," which forbids them from entering downtown. Officials say their ability to replicate the crackdown should prevent the dealing from simply moving elsewhere in the city.