City starts design process for new CH public safety facility

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Columbia Heights police face challenges, look to future in new facility.

The Columbia Heights Police Department has had its challenges in the last four years. Housed in what some city officials view as an undersized, outdated facility, it has weathered cuts in local government aid in 2003–which put an end to some of its crime prevention programs, such as National Night Out–and a sharp spike in violent crime and burglaries in 2005.

But in recent months things have been looking up for the department, as the city’s plans for a new public safety building have gained momentum. And according to Community Development Director Bob Streetar, a city council member’s recent brainstorm might even help solve two city needs in one building.

Public safety building plan

Streetar said a quick tour of the police department shows that the space “is an absolute disaster. It’s an embarrassment. They only have 2,500 square feet for more than 30 staff members. We’ve got single family homes bigger than that. It’s a dilapidated facility. About a month ago, the city council said they wanted to consider a new public safety building. I sent out RFPs [Requests for Proposals] to eight architectural firms for pre-design services. Seven responded.”

Last week Streetar, Columbia Heights Police Chief Tom John- son, Fire Chief Gary Gorman, Mayor Gary Peterson and City Manager Walt Fehst interviewed the seven firms and will send recommendations to the city’s safety building subcommittee, which includes city council member Tami Diehm. The subcommittee will choose an architectural firm.

Streetar said that “pre-design” is a process; the architects interview police and fire department staff, asking how they use the building, how each space is used, and how they will use it in the next 20 years. “That gives them a good idea of the space needs. You don’t want to build a facility that will be functionally obsolete in five years. The process should take them about 60 days, and will culminate in a report to the city council around the end of October or early November. The report will describe the process the architects went through and all the feedback. It will translate into a diagram, or space template, and include estimated costs to build a facility and options for financing.

“In the meantime, Randy Schumacher [Heights’ building project manager] will be estimating acquisition, demolition and relocation costs at a proposed site, based on the amount of space needed for the public safety facility.”

The next step, he added, is to send out another RFP for architectural services for design and development. Streetar said he is working out forecasts for different debt scenarios, which should be done in early November.

“The police and fire departments are pretty adamant about sharing space,” Streetar said. “They can use the same training rooms and bathrooms. And recently, council member Bruce Kelzenberg had a good idea that we’re looking into.”

Kelzenberg’s idea, which is to include a gymnasium and fitness center in the public safety building plan, evolved from meetings about another proposed Columbia Heights facility: a new city activity center. For years–and especially since NEI College of Technology on 41st Avenue, west of Central Avenue, closed and was razed–some residents, many of them parents whose children play on park and recreation sports teams, have complained that the city doesn’t have enough gymnasiums.

A community center committee, ACAC (Activity Center Advisory Committee), hosted an open house July 10 at First Lutheran Church that offered four different concepts for a community center; they ranged from $11 million to $22 million in cost. One concept included a pool; all included gymnasiums and fitness areas.

The community center plan is still in the works; the different models can be viewed here. For information, call Kirsten Partenheimer, community development specialist, 763-706-3674.

Cuts and crimes

Johnson said the police department now has 25 officers, after recently hiring Erik Hanson and Tessa Huber. Huber is the third woman to join the force; the other two are Diana Bugos and Danielle Hanly. An ideal number for Columbia Heights is 26 officers, Johnson added, which they had in the “Clinton Cops” years [during President Bill Clinton’s administration] but lost when the funds for the federal program ran out. “That number allowed us to be proactive with our community policing.”

The city council approved money for an additional patrol car in the city’s highest crime area, Heritage Heights, also known as Sheffield, east of Central Avenue, south of 47th avenue, west of Stinson Boulevard and north of 44th avenue. Johnson said that helped. “Sheffield is not getting any worse, although there are still a lot of kids wandering around up there with nothing to do. They walk in huge groups and block the streets, which can be intimidating. Now we’ve got an officer out talking to people who live there, and we’ve had a lot of people tell us how much they appreciate the patrol car.”

Program cuts

Johnson said the state’s local government aid cuts of 2003 resulted in the end of many effective anti-crime programs, including the National Night Out police-sponsored picnics, which used to average more than 800 people a year, and a graffiti clean-up program that assigned youths caught spraying “tags” (symbols, letters, and monikers) on walls to clean-up crews.

“Project Safety Net,” a collaboration with Fridley, Spring Lake Park and Blaine to deal with kids caught out after curfew, was also discontinued. The Fridley and Columbia Heights police departments have tried to resurrect a smaller version of the program, according to Fridley Police Officer Myra Harris. “Fridley has a curfew problem. We have a program where we’re doing curfew sweeps this summer and are housing the youths at the Fridley Police Department. Officers have been going out and looking for where kids are hanging out. They check their ages, to make sure they’re not out after curfew. We have a volunteer staff of police reserves, plus the officer on duty. The officers might give the kids a citation or cite them for other things, but our main goal is to keep the kids safe. We want to keep the criminals away from the children. So far, we’ve brought in six kids.”

Johnson said that when the full program was running, they did follow-up interviews with the parents the next day, but Harris said they don’t have time or money to do that this year.

The year 2005 saw an increase in part one crimes, which are the most violent, such as homicide, armed robbery, assault, rape. “It was higher for most northern suburbs,” Johnson said. “A lot of gang members who were put into jail in the early 1990s got out, and were making up for lost time.

“That was the year we had the double shooting homicide at the pool hall, and robberies were way up. I think some of it that was happening in Heights was directly related to the crime prevention efforts Minneapolis has been making, with camera systems downtown and more officers. Brooklyn Park and Edina have been seeing more crime on the streets. Here, our problems tend to be along Central Avenue, 40th Avenue and University Avenue.”

Johnson said burglary was high in 2005. “We had a guy doing day-time burglaries and we had everyone out looking for him. He’d look for houses with porches; when he got to the interior door he’d kick it in. He got arrested in Northeast. After he was arrested, our burglaries stopped, but we couldn’t connect him to any of our crimes.”

In 2006, crime in Columbia Heights went down about 9 percent. “We were better prepared; we went from 22 to 25 officers. Also, the council allowed us to put officers into the drug task force and they worked with them very closely. About 80 percent of the problem is meth [methamphetamine]. There is such a big quantity coming in from Mexico and California, and it’s within reach of the economic status of this community. Although the good news is that the meth labs are practically non-existent now, since the pseudoephedrine law went into effect.” (Minnesota now restricts sales of common cold and allergy over-the-counter drugs such as Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient in methamphetamine.)

Johnson said that the department has changed many of its tactics in the years he’s been there. They learned a lot in 2001 after a heavily armed, mentally unbalanced resident shot and wounded two officers, Mike McGee and Val Dietz, on a July afternoon on Jefferson Street NE.

“After that, we changed the way we work. It used to be that we’d send out officers, contain the scene and wait for SWAT. We learned that SWAT’s 45 minutes away. You can’t sit and wait for somebody else to come and handle it. If you’ve got an active shooter at the high school, for instance, your first four officers on the scene suit up. They’re our entry team.” The department has also become more pro-active in school safety; they have written grants for the schools that have helped buy card reader systems, security cameras and motion detectors.

Columbia Heights School District finance director Joe Primus said that in the 2006-2007 school year, the police got the schools a federal matching “Secure Our Schools” grant for a total $103,195.58; the school had to come up with a 50 percent match of about $51,000.

They have submitted another grant for this year, Primus added, for [the school’s portion] $68,666.40, but haven’t heard back on it yet. Johnson said the cameras have helped identify vandals, burglars and kids fighting in the hallways.

Trouble at Jamboree

Johnson said there have been two recent incidents at the Columbia Heights Jamboree celebration. This year, a person at the carnival told a police officer that “those two guys just pulled a gun on me.” He said the officer asked for emergency help, and caught one adult and one juvenile. “We searched and found the gun at 40th and Jefferson. We were very fortunate. It gives me a lot of concern. There were hundreds of people on that corner. We want people to come to our Jamboree and feel safe and secure. We put a lot of time and money into it. We start the planning in January.”

Last year, he said, two women got into a fist fight out in front of the beer garden. “We had a bike officer who was able to get to them right away.”

Retirement soon?

Johnson said he has been with the department for 12 years, and has spent 30 years in law enforcement. He is considering retiring in the spring, he added, when he is 55. “This is a young man’s game. The kids are faster, the cold weather is colder, the stress is more stressful. I’m happy about what we’ve been able to do here, and I’m really pushing for the community center, hopefully with the YMCA to manage the programs. We deal with the issue of kids on the streets with nothing to do, every day.”