Hundreds pack St. Paul meeting to vent about East Side violence

Hundreds of East Side residents in St. Paul packed a church basement and leveled some harsh questions at city officials Thursday night after the shooting death of one man and the severe beating of another.

Concerned about what they see as an apparent rise in the number of loitering teenagers and gangs in the area, they told officials there has long been a lack of police response.

The line to get into the meeting at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church on Greenbrier Street snaked out the door of the basement room, down the hall, up the stairs, and beyond the main door. Inside, the county attorney, the mayor, city council members, the police chief, the people in the top ranks of the police department sat before an overflowing crowd.

"Where are the landlords? Why aren't they being held responsible for what they bring into my neighborhood?" one questioner asked the assembled officials. "What are you going to do about those parents that let these kids run the streets? I'm a responsible parent. Why aren't they?" asked another.

Some suggested that police were sometimes rude when called to a disturbance. Others said response to calls was spotty.

"I feel like if it's on Payne Avenue, then they'll come. But if it's on Edgerton, where we live, north of Maryland, maybe they'll show up in 45 minutes, maybe they won't," the speaker said.

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"I want to know what the police are going to do to make me trust you, so that you, if I need help, you're going to show up to my defense and make sure that I don't get killed," another said.

St. Paul officers responded to the statements in the room by taking down names and addresses of specific incidents and promising to follow up the next day.

Police Chief Tom Smith said he'd recently added 30 officers to patrol the East Side, and he's determined to have them be responsive to neighborhood concerns.

"I want to tell people something here. Some people aren't happy with our service from time to time. If you're not happy with the service you get from the person you talk to, then you call back and you talk to one of my command staff. I guarantee you someone will take action, but you have to call the right person," Smith said.

But Smith emphasized that, "I can't arrest our way out of this problem; I'm not going to tell you that I can. We will arrest people but there's a bigger issue about why all of a sudden this year these flash mobs have started to show up. And even though serious crime is down in this area, I can show you the numbers -- it doesn't matter, it's all wiped out because of what is happening."

Another concern: Teenagers who quickly gather in social media-fueled groups. But in some of those cases police officers can only do so much, Smith said. When officers show up at the scene of a fight many people run, and it's hard to get all the names. Sometimes victims don't cooperate. But Smith said the department has been taking action that's making a difference. He said more than 100 young people have been picked up on the East Side since May 1 for curfew violations.

Some in the room complained that parents need to do a better job keeping track of their kids. That's when Teena Potts stood at the microphone and reminded the room that working parents can't be home all day to supervise their children. She said she's the mother of one of teenagers arrested in the assault of 26-year-old Ray Widstrand.

Police say Widstrand wandered into a gang fight and was beaten and kicked, and left with near fatal brain swelling. Potts said her son should be held responsible if he committed a crime, but she also criticized people who were judging parents.

"When I'm at work my kids stay home," she said. "When I'm at work and my son leave the house, I don't have control of that."

Ramsey County Attorney Jon Choi told residents his office is committed to seeing justice served in the Widstrand case.

"We have to send that really strong message because quite frankly what had happened to Ray is pure evil," Choi said.

Other parents said they hoped that increasing police presence on the East Side wouldn't lead to racial profiling and harassment of kids with "stop and frisk" measures. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that wouldn't happen because officers know they're most effective when they have the respect of the community.

"If they lose that respect because they're going around just thumping heads or beating people up for no reason, I will guarantee you, the work that they do will become 10 times more difficult. That is not a strategy for success. That's a strategy for failure," Coleman said.

Coleman said the city also has to concentrate on root causes and the worst offenders.

Pastor Devin Miller of Clear Faith Christian Ministries said that's a realization the city should have come to long ago. Miller worked with gang members on the East Side for years. Right now, he's frustrated.

"We keep doing the same thing. We keep having community meetings," he said. "Something happens, we have a community meeting, everybody vents, the city's going to say this is what we're going to do, the police say this is what we're going to do, and then we don't do jack. Why? Because no one holds us accountable."

This time, he said, the long-term response has to include creating options for kids who have nothing else to do.