SSP police take new approach to rental issues, mental health-related calls

Four months after it was formed, the newest unit within the South St. Paul Police Department gave an update about its work to the city council on April 15.

Community engagement officer Derek Kruse said the need for the community engagement unit came from several sources — it began its work in January. The city has a large portion of rental housing and it was determined having an officer oversee rental properties, as well as rental ordinance violations, would be beneficial. The need also arose from an increase in tension and distrust between community members and law enforcement seen across the country.

“The community engagement unit is committed to rebuilding our relationship with our community and hopes to do so through many new and exciting events throughout the year,” Kruse said in an interview.

The unit consists of Kruse, Kalyn Bassett, who is a mental health coordinator with Dakota County Social Services, and Katie Daggit, a police support specialist.

Kruse said at the meeting there are a lot of different responsibilities that come with the new work.

“We recognized there were areas of the police department that needed improvement and we’re kind of tackling those,” he said.

One of the areas is community events. Since the unit was created, the department has held “Cappuccino with a Cop,” “Pop with a Cop,” “Cram-A-Cruiser” and a drug take-back day.

Kruse said the community events are an important way to get people familiar with the police department, as well as to “establish some goodwill toward the department.”

The department is looking at creating a Twitter account for real-time updates, as well as an Instagram account.

 

Landlords, renters

Another thing the community engagement unit has taken over is regulating rental properties. The city clerk’s office used to be in charge of rentals.

The unit is now responsible for background checks, which includes reviewing prior calls for service to rentals, as well as landlord background checks, rental violation letters and creating a working relationship with landlords. 

Kruse said since the unit has taken over, it has been able to stay on track with rental violations and letters get sent out promptly, rather than after a couple weeks. He said landlords reach out to him directly now that there is a point of contact at the police department.

“We can work together to prevent these apartments from becoming an issue and work with them to address the issues they’re having with their tenants,” Kruse said.

He’s also planning on creating a landlord packet, which will include information on landlord-tenant laws, restrictions and common problems.

A program being brought back is neighborhood watch, which will roll out in May or June. 

Kruse said the unit is also working on an excessive call ordinance.

“Obviously, we have the rental ordinance, which allows us to tackle problem rental properties, but this ordinance would allow us to increase the owner accountability for homeowners,” he said.

A draft of the ordinance will be ready for council review within the next month.

 

Mental health-related calls 

Kruse also spends his time working on the Law Enforcement Coordinated Response Pilot program. It’s a collaboration between Dakota County Social Services, South St. Paul PD and West St. Paul police, consisting of Bassett, Kruse and West St. Paul officer Jesse Mettner.

The purpose of the pilot was to explore and implement a more coordinated response to address the increase in calls for service regarding mental health crises. 

“It was brought to head, I think, in July when we had the shooting, and we realized some of the dangers that are involved when we’re not tackling this issue and how many calls for service we’re actually responding to,” Kruse said.  

Kruse, along with another officer, was shot last year responding to a mental health-related call at a halfway house.

The pilot involves the community engagement officer reviewing daily reports and calls for service to identify those related to mental health, crises or substance abuse. The officer and mental health coordinator follow up with the folks involved, as well as providers. Kruse said he often meets them in person.

The pilot will continue to be developed and examined for effectiveness, Kruse said, with the idea of rolling it out across Dakota County and the state. St. Paul and Minneapolis already have similar programs, he said, but the collaboration between South St. Paul and West St. Paul is probably the first suburban area to explore it.

Target populations for the program are West St. Paul and South St. Paul residents who experience mental health challenges, with a focus on those with the most complex needs who have frequent law enforcement involvement. Kruse said the pilot looks at chemical abuse challenges as well, which often go hand-in-hand with mental health.

In the first three months of the program, Kruse said there have been 111 follow-ups related to mental health incidents in South St. Paul alone. “I think that proves the need for this program,” he said.

 

Council support

Mayor Jimmy Francis said the numbers show there has been an effect in the short period of time since the program launched. 

Council member Tom Seaberg asked how long Dakota County is committed to the pilot. He asked how the council can help county commissioners understand the importance of the program for South St. Paul and West St. Paul, and thanked them for their support.

Bassett, who was at the meeting, said the initial pilot program is through 2019. She said she thinks the intention of Dakota County is to build a quarterly report to advocate for the program to continue, because “I think Dakota County sees it is very valuable and this has just been a really good endeavor.” She added they’ll be discussing the pilot with the Dakota County Board of Commissioners this month.

 

–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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