Proposed Central Avenue probation office draws criticism

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Although Hennepin County officials say it will have a positive effect, not every Northeast resident is pleased about the county’s plan to set up a new probation office at 2632 Central Ave. NE, this summer.

Waite Park neighborhood resident Nick Heille, for instance, said he only learned about it when he was passing out fliers at Art-A-Whirl and saw a city permit posted on the building. He contends that county and city officials made no efforts to notify or discuss it with residents beforehand.

“They [at the county] say, ‘This is just going to be a clerical office.’ OK, but why Northeast? This is unreal,” Heille said.

The county’s perspective
Craig Vos, program manager of adult supervision for the Hennepin County Corrections Department, said the county is renting and renovating a small storefront, which they will convert into a two-person office. It will accommodate two probation officers: one who supervises adults and another who supervises juveniles.

“We wouldn’t be bringing criminals from South Minneapolis to Northeast. These people [they will supervise] are already living in the 2nd Precinct.”
(The 2nd Precinct includes Northeast Minneapolis and parts of Southeast, including the University of Minnesota.)

“ Where we’ve done it [set up offices in other neighborhoods], we’ve not had any negative experiences. Crime goes down; it seems to have a calming effect a few blocks around the office,” Vos said. “And if a neighborhood group said they didn’t want us to open an office, we wouldn’t.”

The difference between parole and probation, Vos added, is that probationers have not gone to prison while parolees have, although probationers might have gone to a workhouse for up to a year.

“There are 70 people on parole living in the 55413, 55418 and 55421 zip codes of Minneapolis. Many, many more are on probation.”

Most of the agents’ work will be done outside the office, seeing clients in the community at their homes or work sites, Vos said. “The office becomes the place neighborhood people can go for information. If you had a burglary and you want to know what happened with the case, the agents could punch it up [on the computer] and tell you when the next court date is.”

The storefront, which the county is renting, will have a small meeting room available to neighborhood groups, Vos added.

The agents are already becoming involved in safety issues, he added, such as block club patrols and talking to the Guardian Angels. “Agents work in cooperation with established projects; they act as a conduit. We need to know where the graffiti is, for instance. When the neighborhood agents get direct information, they can get the county crews out to do graffiti removal.”

Vos said Hennepin County has three other similar small office sites, in Stevens Square, Phillips and the Midtown-Lake Street neighborhoods of South Minneapolis.

He said the Central Avenue office is now being renovated and made handicap accessible; they hope to have it open in July. “The adult [supervisory] agent, Barbara Johnson Mundis, has been up there talking with neighbors.” There won’t be any support staff at the office, he added, only the two agents, who will maintain some office hours. The juvenile supervisory agent has not yet been hired, he added. “In general, the buildings where we have these offices end up in better condition than before we rent them. The county pays for the renovation work.”

When asked what kind of people will be checking in at the probation office, Vos said a typical offender might be an 18-year old male who lives in a Northeast neighborhood, stole a car, and was put on probation. “He might still be living with his parents.”

How many people are we talking about? He didn’t give a direct answer, but said, “All of the people we supervise in Northeast are not going to be supervised at this office. There are too many. Hennepin County has 28,000 adults we supervise on all forms of supervision. Some, such as sex offenders, are supervised through other programs; their reporting center is downtown. There are specialized programs for domestic assault; those people wouldn’t be coming to the Northeast probation office.

“By putting this office in Northeast, we’re not saying it’s a terrible neighborhood. But there are people who get into trouble. The crime and safety issues in Northeast are changing. You’ve got a lot of support for the Guardian Angels, and people who want to organize block patrols. This is providing access to probation officers. It’s another resource to help.

“It puts the agents in the neighborhoods. It is much better if an agent can walk over to their house and see what they’re doing, talk to the people living next door. If the neighbors say the person has loud and noisy parties every night, it gives us an idea of how the offender is living his life at home. I think it improves the quality of supervision, and improves access of neighborhood residents to justice [system] information. One of the things that has sprung out of these kinds of programs is Court Watch, a way to identify problem people who commit lower level livability crimes. With that identification, we enhance [aid] the prosecution; it was an unanticipated offshoot.

“Overall, I think it is a plus,” Vos said. “A piece of this is prevention.”

Probation officers do not carry weapons, he added, and sometimes they work with police officers on cooperative visits or joint warrant enforcement. “If you have a high-profile gang member on supervision, for instance, we wouldn’t want the probation officer to make a home visit without a police officer. And, there are some gang members who live in Northeast, although I don’t think Northeast has a huge gang problem yet, compared to other neighborhoods,” Vos said.

“There is a lot of cooperation between what we do and what the police do. [Minneapolis Police] Officers will have access to the county’s computers, and the [Hennepin County] probation officers will have a desk at the 2nd Precinct [station, at 1851 Central Ave. NE],” he added.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, when asked about the probation office, said, “Here’s the reality. There are bad people living in Northeast who are on probation. Our crime rate is up 65 percent. The beauty of county probation officers is that if somebody is on probation and they’re where they’re not supposed to be, they [the officer] can take them in. If they’re not going to put police over there, I’m going to put probation officers there. Northeast has been totally forgotten about.”

Stenglein said that a Hennepin County probation house in North Minneapolis has “calmed down that neighborhood. Probation officers are scary people,” to probationers because they have power over them, he added.

The Northeast office “will be a place for them to go have a desk and file cabinet. We’ll have them downplay the signage. But the more presence you can have, the better. People in Northeast are very upset. I’m just doing what I can to keep Northeast safe.”

Neighborhood perspective
Kevin Reich, executive director of the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association (HNIA), said the probation office will be in the Holland neighborhood.

When asked if any county representatives had contacted HNIA to talk about the office, he said, “We had heard nothing, except through the grapevine. After some residents made us aware of the plan, we subsequently encountered two different stories. [Hennepin County Commissioner Mark] Stenglein said it was nothing to worry about, just a place for paper pushing.

“But residents were skeptical,” Reich added, “saying they feared it might be a crime magnet. It is going right into an area that Holland and the Audubon Neighborhood Association have already identified as a problem area. At the least, neighbors were saying, ‘It looks like a criminal processing area; they’re bringing crime to the avenue, and what kind of statement is that? Is the county saying we have so many criminals here that we need this office to manage them?’

“That’s why you [the county] should engage the community early on,” Reich said, “to give a more accurate picture. If you think you’re just going to slip one through, particularly through public channels, people will find out anyway. Now the rumor mill is going. Neighbors don’t like being engaged when it’s already a done deal.”

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