On a sunny afternoon last month, a group of teens gathered on a basketball court in a St. Cloud park for the first tipoff in a late-summer league.
With almost every other summer activity canceled due to COVID-19, they were eager to play. The game’s referee, Ryan Sayre, blew the whistle to start the game.
When he's not playing ball, Sayre is often across the street from the courts in a tan, multistory house with a neatly mowed lawn — where he works as a St. Cloud police sergeant.
“Now more than ever, this is important,” Sayre said. “It’s a way to connect with the youth.”
Six years ago, St. Cloud police kicked off plans to open a community service hub in a struggling neighborhood, an effort to reduce crime and offer services that would help improve residents' quality of life. The Richard C. Wilson Community OutPost opened in August 2017, the only one of its kind in Minnesota.
Supporters say the outpost has helped improve relations between police and residents, and should be a model for other cities considering reforms since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police at the end of May.
St. Cloud Police Chief William “Blair” Anderson said the outpost is one part of his department’s yearslong effort to get to know its community — and think outside the box when it comes to neighborhood involvement.
“This is just one tool in our community engagement tool box,” he said. “It’s the biggest one. It’s the crown jewel. But it’s just one.”
The outpost concept originated in Racine, Wis., as a way to reduce crime by embedding police officers in a neighborhood with high crime rates. That city experienced a significant drop in violent crime in the area surrounding its first outpost and has since added six more, Anderson said.
Anderson was first pitched the idea by one of his officers, a native of Racine. He said he immediately agreed. His department focused its efforts on a neighborhood on the city's south side, where officers say there are a lot of kids who don't have much access to resources and activities.
"If our kids are struggling, often times that means parents are struggling,” said St. Cloud police Cmdr. Brett Mushatt. “Not necessarily if any fault of their own, but because they lack some of the resources that because of location, transportation, a number of things."
The project was a community effort. Local organizations and businesses donated money and labor to cover the $400,000 cost of buying a house in disrepair, knocking it down and building a new one.
Retired St. Cloud fire Chief Bill Mund serves as board chair of the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation, which owns and operates the outpost. He said he was intrigued by the new way to simultaneously deal with crime and build relationships with residents.
"It was markedly different,” Mund said, “where we were going to actually have police officers kind of focusing on a neighborhood, rather than all over the city, and trying to get to know the people that lived in that neighborhood.”
Some residents were skeptical about police moving into the neighborhood, fearing that it would be a substation to spy on the residents, Anderson said.
But he said the point was to create a community gathering place that's not just for cops. Health care and social service workers have regular staff at the outpost. An ambulance crew is stationed at the house to speed up response times.
Before COVID-19, the outpost was also bustling with after-school homework help for kids, English language and sewing classes, backpack and coat drives, even a mobile dental clinic.
"Sometimes the officers who are staffed here just fling the doors open and pull the grill out and throw some burgers and hot dogs for the kids, especially in summertime,” Anderson said.
A different approach
It doesn’t sound like typical police work — and that's intentional, Anderson said, because the role of law enforcement is changing.
"Some of the things that we are asked to do now as police officers didn't used to be our problem,” he said. “We’re kind of quasi-family therapists and clergy and all things … just based on the types of calls we answer.”
He said it makes sense for police to address some of the reasons people may end up in legal trouble later in life.
The strategy seems to be having some success. The chief points to an independent study last year, which found that theft and property crimes in the neighborhood have declined since the outpost opened. Drug arrests have increased, possibly because of increased enforcement by outpost officers.
And in the conversations around policing reforms since the killing of George Floyd, the outpost idea is getting renewed attention. U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), whose 6th Congressional District includes St. Cloud, proposed federal funding for a pilot program to promote community outposts nationwide.
Meanwhile, the study found residents' opinions of the project have improved, with the majority of residents surveyed saying they feel neighborhood conditions have improved.
Hani Jacobson works at the outpost two days a week as a public health nurse for CentraCare Health. She said when the house was being built, there were many misconceptions about it.
"But as time went and more and more people started to notice all the good services that are coming out of this house, it changed that perception,” she said.
Jacobson said the outpost offers a convenient, central location for neighbors to get their blood sugar checked or schedule an appointment with a nurse.
“It is within walking distance for a lot of communities experiencing health disparities,” she said. “It’s nice that they can just walk in here if they don’t speak the language, or if they don’t understand the health system.”
Finding common ground
The relationship between St. Cloud police and residents was tested in June, when protests erupted just a few blocks from the outpost after false rumors spread on social media that officers had shot a Black teenager.
Anderson said he thinks his department's outreach efforts, including the outpost and working with local organizations on a community policing agreement, helped quell tensions after two nights of unrest.
But the outpost didn’t escape unscathed. An arson attempt in June caused some damage to the house exterior — an act Anderson attributes to “idiots and opportunists.”
“Some people are just looking to make trouble,” he said. “That’s my honest answer, because there’s been nothing but goodness that has come from this place.”
The late-summer basketball league came together when Buddy King, a community activist who works for a St. Cloud nonprofit called Higher Works Collaborative, reached out to officers at the outpost.
King said he wanted to give kids stuck at home a chance to have fun before heading back to school, but the games have been more than that. He said on the first night, one parent saw the police and got defensive, so he stepped in and got them into a conversation.
“And when it was all said and done, they shook hands and showed some love,” King said. “And that's that's what it was about."
Mamady Traore of Sauk Rapids, who was watching his 14-year-old son, Ismael, at last week's game, said he thinks having the police involved in the community right now is more important than ever.
"That's the reason why it's good,” Traore said. “We are here with them today, here knowing each other, doing stuff together, having that relationship and building that trust.”
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