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New St. Paul police program will keep tabs on violent gang members

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Crime scene
A St. Paul car outside the scene of a shooting in 2007.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

The list of targeted individuals goes by the name of 'Bob', which stands for the "baddest of the bunch."

The alleged gang members -- ranging in age from 15 to 27 -- landed on the list because of extensive rap sheets, or because they've been linked to violent crimes but were never convicted. Police said they belong to one of two rival gangs -- the East Side Boys or the Selby Siders.

Now that the list has been formed, Sgt. Trish Englund said it's time for introductions.

"In essence, what we're going to do is bring everyone to the table and say, 'We've identified you, and we're going to give you two paths to go down," Englund said. "We would prefer you to take this path where we have some resources in place for you to use, and people who genuinely want to help you and change your lifestyle. Or you're going to go down this path, where we're going to target you, and it's going to be one where you'll end up in jail, and possibly in jail for a very long time." 

Nathaniel Khaliq
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP, is concerned about a new police program intended to stop armed gangbangers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Englund is a homicide detective who is coordinating the program. She said gang activity has risen dramatically in St. Paul. 

Over the past four years, the Selby Siders alone have been associated with eight homicides and nearly a hundred drive-by shootings and similar kinds of assaults.

The warfare between the two gangs came to a head last year on a Metro Transit bus, where a 16-year-old was shot to death. 

Police are throwing just about every resource available into the effort, known as SAGA -- short for "Stop Armed Gang Activity." It involves the homicide, gang and narcotics units, as well as an intelligence analyst. The bulk of the $400,000 grant will go toward overtime pay for officers.

Police are planning to use covert tactics to help officers build their cases against the individuals. Englund acknowledges that even loitering could warrant a pat-down.

"The truth of the matter is, if you have a group of documented gang members hanging on a corner, the police are going to stop and talk to them," she said.

"We see it as a selective prosecution of individuals."

Englund said city, county and even U.S. attorneys are also on board, ready to throw the book at the targeted gang members if they choose the wrong path.

But some people don't think the get-tough approach will work. The head of the St. Paul NAACP, Nathaniel Khaliq, said he'd rather see the money and energy going into programs that prevent kids from getting into trouble in the first place.

Khaliq also said he hoped that his group and others could have helped develop the program, rather than being asked by police to to show their support before the launch.

"We see it as a selective prosecution of individuals," Khaliq said. "You already have them on the list, and you're just waiting for them to trip, and then you move on them."

Khaliq said the police frequently target African-American men while overlooking other communities. For instance, a group of boys accused of a recent baseball-bat attack at Lake Phalen were Asian, not black. And Khaliq said the new program could distract the police from going after older, more established gangs rather than young people from the neighborhood.

"A lot of them, we know their aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers," Khaliq said. "It is an opportunity if it's framed right. I certainly don't want to be part of an effort that gives the parents, nor these young men, false expectations that we have a safety net there."

But police say the program will make sure that safety net is there. 

That's where Rev. Darryl Spence comes in. Spence said he's found about 25 nonprofits who want to be a part of the program, offering services ranging from mentorships to holistic health care to the gang members.

"As a neighborhood preacher, I am tired of the only phone calls I get is when a young man has been killed or a young woman is shot, and they need a preacher," Spence said. "I want to be a preacher who can help turn young lives around and I think that's where we're at right now. It's time to partner with the police department to save our community."

Spence is a member of the God Squad, a group of ministers who work with the police department. He has been hired by the police to meet with the targeted gang members.

"We're going to present to you a case. 'This is you. We know who you are, we know what you're doing," Spence said. "When you come in to the Rev. Spence, I'm going to hand you a piece of paper and find out what your needs are. I'm going to go over it with my crew, and we're going to find people in our community who do just that."

But the program won't begin until it receives buy-in from other community leaders. And one of the key players is Nathaniel Khaliq of the NAACP. The police have asked him to co-sign a letter that will be sent to the 60 targeted men, urging them to come to a community meeting. 

Khaliq said he still needs to be convinced that this is helping young black men, not targeting them.