St. Cloud looks to curb spike in violent crime

A person wearing a red jersey gestures to the right.
In July 2020, St. Cloud police chief Blair Anderson (right) talks about the city's Community OutPost that opened in 2017 as an effort to reduce crime and offer services to residents.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2017

It's a record that no city wants to break: St. Cloud had its fifth homicide of the year last month, surpassing its previous high set in 2015.

That's nowhere close to the 93 homicides in Minneapolis so far this year, or St. Paul’s record-setting 35. 

But for this central Minnesota city of 69,000 people an hour north of the Twin Cities, it's unsettling. So are the 19 shootings — more than double last year — in St. Cloud this year. Three of them were fatal.

"We're faring a little bit better in St. Cloud than our colleagues and our partners down here, but we're not immune,” St. Cloud police chief William Blair Anderson told a Senate judiciary and public safety committee in October. “We do get a significant amount of spillover or criminals bringing their criminal activity to our area and to our region."

Anderson, who has been St. Cloud's police chief for nearly a decade, has some theories about the upswing. In a recent interview, he said his officers are encountering more people carrying firearms — often stolen or bought by straw purchasers — who aren’t allowed to have guns because of prior convictions.

And Anderson thinks the courts are giving too many chances to serial criminals who don’t follow conditions of their parole or probation.

"Seeing the number of repeat offenders and people who should be locked up that are still out here committing crimes, that's particularly frustrating for all of us,” Anderson said. 

Still, it's difficult to draw conclusions from one year of data. According to data provided by the St. Cloud Police Department, calls for service for some types of crimes — such as assault, theft and burglary — are down this year, while overdoses, behavioral health and domestic calls are up.

screenshot of a police chief speaking at a hearing
St. Cloud police chief Blair Anderson speaks to the Minnesota Senate's Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy during a hearing on the increase in violent crime in Minnesota on Oct. 21.
Screenshot via Minnesota Senate

Of St. Cloud's five homicides this year, only one was random, Anderson said. In June, a longtime St. Cloud State University professor was shot and killed by someone who knocked on the door of his home asking for help. A Duluth man pleaded guilty in October to second-degree murder.

In the other cases, the victim and suspect were acquainted, Anderson said.

"The parties are usually known to each other and are having some kind of a beef over something — usually something stupid,” he said. “Nothing's worth another person's life."

The city’s latest homicide on Nov. 28 was a three-month-old baby. His 26-year-old mother is charged with murder for allegedly killing him and throwing his body in a dumpster.

National trend

The trend in St. Cloud is similar to what's happening nationwide, said Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. There's been an increase in shootings and homicides, but a decline in other less serious crimes, he said. 

"The pandemic really altered our patterns of movement and behavior,” Uggen said. “If they closed the shopping mall, you're generally going to see less petty theft and things like that."

Uggen said sociologists are studying the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown on 18- to 25-year-olds, which, as a group, have tended to be a law-abiding cohort. 

But in the pandemic, some were left on their own, without school resources, jobs or recreational activities, Uggen said.

"Think about how that increased the social control of adolescents who were living with their parents, and they had a parent kind of supervising them all the time,” he said. “And it decreased the social control for kids who didn't necessarily have those ties and resources."

It's not yet clear whether this will be a one-year blip or a longer surge of higher crime, Uggen said.

“To what extent are we talking about a temporary adjustment to the conditions of life under COVID?” he said. “And to what extent are we talking about something that's more fundamental that reflects kind of a reversal of the generally downward trend in crime that we've had since the mid-1990s?”

Positive signs

Anderson said St. Cloud is taking steps to tamp down the recent crime surge, including hiring four more police officers starting in January.

The city and its partners also are expanding a program that has helped address the rising number of calls related to mental health, which consume a lot of police officers’ time.

Nearly two years ago, the city police department partnered with the nonprofit Central Minnesota Mental Health Center to create a co-responder team. It includes a dedicated police officer and a mental health professional who respond to 911 behavioral health calls together. 

The officer secures the scene and makes sure the person isn't a threat, said Rick Lee, the mental health center's executive director.

"Then, the officer kind of recedes, and the mental health professional takes the lead,” he said.

Before the team, Lee said law enforcement officers were repeatedly called to deal with people with untreated mental illness or substance use disorders over minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing.

"They departed the emergency room after evaluation within a couple of hours,” he said. “It wasn't uncommon for police to encounter them again, sometimes in the same day. So there was this revolving door."

The team has helped reduce the number of people that police transport to jail, the emergency room or detox by 30 percent, Lee said.

The mental health center is expanding the program to hire two more co-responders to be available for more hours, with funding from Stearns County using American Rescue Plan Act money. One team will be dedicated to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and the other to the St. Cloud Police Department.

At the Senate hearing in October, Anderson urged lawmakers to provide permanent funding for programs such as the co-responder model that have a track record of success. 

Despite the recent surge, he maintains that St. Cloud is still a safe city.

“It's sad that a small number of people cause havoc and cause people to be fearful,” Anderson said.

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