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Cleaning up crime in Pine County

September 23, 2017

 

A comprehensive look at collaboration efforts made by sheriff and county attorney offices:

 

It’s no secret that Pine County has been labeled a high crime area in the state. The county has been featured as one of “Minnesota’s 10 Most Dangerous Places after Dark” due to having the highest burglary rate statewide. BCA crime statistics have consistently put Pine County toward the top of the list for crime, and we’ve even made national television for cult activity.

 

Though we see crime headlines every week, making it seem like crime is out of control in the county, progress is being made toward a safer environment for the people. We now receive less boarding income from having criminals outside the county in our jail as we have in the past; the jails are now full of offenders who commit crimes in our county.

 

The offices of the Pine County Sheriff and the Pine County Attorney have changed hands as of January 2015 when Sheriff Jeff Nelson and County Attorney Reese Frederickson were elected.

 

Along with the change in sheriff and county attorney, changes in leadership philosophy and changes in collaboration between departments has also taken place, and the results have been positive ones.

Seeing the trees through the forest

For Sheriff Nelson, sometimes it’s tough to see the bigger picture when in the day to day grind of combating crime. “When you see what people do to each other, it's hard to see the goodness of it all,” said Nelson. “You're putting out fires daily, and it’s tough to see that bigger picture. But I can't help but see an improvement in crime with the statistics coming back from the BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension).”

 

One statistic Nelson refers to indicates an increase in arrests since taking office in 2015. Since 2015, the monthly average of arrests has nearly doubled from 98 to 161. “But for me, the best measurement is direct feedback, and from what I've heard, people feel safer and better about living here,” said Nelson.

 

Since 2015, when County Attorney Reese Frederickson also took office, adult criminal filings have increased by 38%, and juvenile case filings have increased by 37%.  “I consistently hear good things from the community about prosecution and the sheriff’s office,” said County Attorney Reese Frederickson. “I think often the general public feels crime is worse though because they see it in the media or on social media more. When people see a lot of that, it generally feels like there’s more crime, but people also say they feel safer because it’s getting taken care of.”

 

Both Nelson and Frederickson agree that the majority of crime stems from chemical use, whether it’s alcohol or illegal drugs such as methamphetamine. Most of the methamphetamine is being transported in now. In the past, methamphetamine labs were within the county.

 

Nelson added that mental health is also a factor in crime and that resources are not always available. “Often the only safe option is to put them in jail. It’s not necessarily the right answer for that person,” said Nelson. Many people with mental health issues tend to self-medicate and it’s not always easy to differentiate between biological issues and chemical issues, said Nelson.

 

Frederickson added that methamphetamine is a catalyst for many burglaries.

 

But even with the increase in arrests, the latest 2017 data shows that burglary calls are currently at an average of 29.5 per month, which is down from the monthly average of 42 in 2016.

 

Though the sheriff’s office is seeing an increase in calls for crimes like theft, domestic disputes and disturbance, many of the more serious, frequent-flier type criminals have been taken off the streets, according to Nelson.

 

Burglary down

“Burglary is down and significantly lower than where we were last year,” said Nelson. “We have investigators and deputies that have made it their number one priority, but it takes a lot of work. I can't say enough to how well they're doing.”

 

Frederickson said that the public doesn’t see the amount of work that investigators put in. “They almost take it personally. Investigator Layon, for example, will be on a case and stick with it and stick with it until there is a crack in the case. All the investigators are like that; it’s fun to watch,” said Frederickson.

 

Burglaries are tough to solve, said Nelson. They are usually in remote, easy target locations in rural Pine County.

 

“Solving burglaries starts with the deputies. If they just show up and drive away, not documenting what they see there and looking closely into things, not much can happen,” said Nelson. He added that one particular deputy is adept at fingerprinting and has solved a couple crimes using that approach.  

 

“I would like to throw a kudos to Reese,” said Nelson. “If we weren’t getting the prosecutions, it would be hard to motivate the deputies. When the deputies see that you’re not only getting the minimal charges, but some extra charges that will make the case stick, this motivates my office to work even harder to put detail into their work.”

 

Collaboration efforts

After the 2014 election, Nelson called Frederickson eager to talk about going forward and had a conversation making sure they were on the same page and setting some similar goals.

 

It’s easy for Nelson and Frederickson to pop into each others offices or visit personnel using their key badges. “If I’m looking at a case or a resolution, I will ask Jeff what he would think, especially on some of the bigger cases,” said Frederickson. “Feedback is critical and communication is critical. Prosecutors cannot be a success without law enforcement.”

 

Nelson agreed, stating, “It’s been really good with Reese and his office. He always answers the phone or gives advice late at night. It never seems to be the textbook ones at 2:00 or 4:00 in the morning.”

 

One of the first things that Nelson and Frederickson did was hold training and input sessions for their staff. Nelson had his staff ask how reports needed to be filled out to be thorough. “We need to fill in the blanks because if you leave an opening, that is when the defense attorney can fill in the blanks,” said Nelson.

 

Frederickson enjoys training sessions with law enforcement and looks for that same type of feedback from the deputies and investigators. “Communication, feedback and keeping the door open are a must,” said Frederickson. “I ask if they have any problems with anyone in my office, and it helps guide where people are and how they are assigned to cases.”

 

Nelson and Frederickson’s goal of dealing with repeat offenders has begun to pay off in one community: Sandstone. “You get a few of the right people off the streets, and it does a lot to change a community,” said Nelson.

 

Change in atmosphere

Sandstone, traditionally, has had its fair share of crime, and Frederickson, when moving into the city, noticed several questionable people walking around the community. “There was a drug dealer in town who has been dealing for about 20 years in various places. And when that person on Commercial Avenue was there, there were always sketchy people around them,” recalled Frederickson.

 

“When we started in 2015, a focus was getting repeat offenders off the street, and we could name about a dozen who were problems,” he added. “It feels like a different town now. You see kids on bikes now. Many of these offenders were magnets.”

 

“Getting the right people in prison or jail does make a difference,” added Nelson. “There are times when people need to have a timeout and reflect on their choices, and putting them in jail or prison helps them think about that.”

 

Frederickson added that when he took office, the perception was that the prior administration ignored northern Pine County. He said his goal was to change the perception and treat Pine County as one community with equal law enforcement.

 

Policy and team building

Nelson, having worked in Pine County for 25 years, has had the advantage of observing several different sheriffs. “I try to avoid saying things about former sheriffs, but this (having worked under other sheriffs) was advantageous to change the feel of the department,” recalled Nelson. “There were some decent things that happened with the sheriffs before me, but the deputies need to know what policy is, and then you let them work. You have to trust your employees, as long as they’re being held accountable to policy.”

 

Frederickson believes an effective department begins with a group consisting of good team members. “I like having people here that are smarter than me,” said Frederickson. “My staff is highly intelligent, motivated, aggressive and fair. People are smiling and excited about the cases. Even though we are short staffed (having 233 cases per attorney which is nearly double compared to neighboring counties), they are motivated. The team that I have now is the team that I wanted when I started here.”

 

One of the goals Frederickson established during his campaign was to take repeat offenders off the street. “When I went door to door and every third house had been hit by a burglary, and half of those people knew who did it, I learned many of those people have not been brought to trial. The cases were not litigated enough. My goal was to hold these repeat offenders responsible,” recalled Frederickson.

 

Nelson noted that for every hire, he has had Frederickson on the hiring board to give perspective. “When I can trust Reese and ask for advice, it is part of building that trust and working together,” said Nelson.

 

Challenges

The recent message to criminals has been: if you are going to commit crime in our county, you will go to jail. But sometimes judicial decisions tie the hands of law enforcement and prosecution. This happened recently in the case of Jordan Andrew Allen, 33 of Rush City, who pled guilty to forcing a child under the age of 13 into sexual activity.

 

Under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, the standard sentence for a second-degree criminal sexual conduct charge is 11 years in prison. Frederickson and his attorneys pushed for a tough sentence in line with state sentencing guidelines, but defense argued for a light sentence blaming his behavior on his use of methamphetamine and hypersexuality as a result. Judge Heather Wynn sided with the methamphetamine defense and reduced his sentence to just one year in jail with 25 years probation, though the Pine County prosecution adamantly opposed a reduced sentence due to the serious nature of the crime.

 

Another challenge, recognized by Nelson, is the freeway and size of the county. “Our strengths are our weaknesses. It is a big county with a large stretch of I-35 which makes us accessible in a good way and bad way. That’s a challenge that will never go away,” said Nelson. “And people don’t seem to leave their problems at home when they visit or recreate.”

 

Frederickson added that there isn’t a lot of money to go around in the county, and that has been another challenge. Having a large caseload per attorney and retention of employees is a concern of Frederickson’s.

 

Trends

The county is still riding the wave of the opioid issues and officials are not sure it has crested yet, according to Nelson. He also said they’ve seen a lot of scams and fraud. “They’re out there because they work,” said Nelson. “Have those conversations with loved ones and look out for each other.”

 

Frederickson said another trend they are seeing is the increase of violent female offenders. “This was rare 10 years ago. We are seeing younger females who are committing more violent crimes,” added Frederickson.  

 

Family life

Normal work days and hours don’t often exist for sheriffs and county attorneys, and for the families of Nelson and Frederickson, life in law enforcement has been a challenge but nothing that hasn’t been overcome.

 

“My wife has known law enforcement all of our married life,” said Nelson who has two grown children, a son who is 24 and a daughter who is 22, with his wife. “There have been Christmases and birthdays that I couldn’t be at. Now I have more balance, but the first year was more rough. I have deputies who work all hours and spread out all over the county, and for the most part, they want to see me. I get out and try to see them. There are also meetings outside of the work day. But my family has been so supportive, and growing up together, my wife understands. She is my biggest champion.”

 

Frederickson has younger children and a spouse who works. “There seems to be extra put on her with meetings at night or on weekends. I basically missed the entire fall of 2015 with the Raisch murder case,” recalled Frederickson. “But she is extremely supportive. My eight-year-old son doesn’t understand what I do but thinks it’s cool that I work with cops.”

 

What next?

Though Sheriff Nelson admits that crime will never be eliminated, both he and Frederickson look forward to growing the initiatives they have begun. For Frederickson, the next step is to focus on truancy issues starting with the East Central School District where the problem is interfering with education. “I think if we have a handle on truancy we will reduce juvenile crime and eventually adult crime,” said Frederickson.

 

For Nelson, he is looking forward to adding new technology in a record system that will help with the workflow and the possibility of body cameras.

 

“The positive feedback reminds me of why I’m here. It’s the good and decent people of Pine County that keeps me going and motivated,” reflected Frederickson.

 

“I do appreciate the support I see for our office. I see more good comments than bad,” said Nelson. “Pine County, within the industry, has been traditionally looked down on for their crime level. But now I go to conferences and people say, ‘Oh, you’re from Pine County’ in a positive way and that reflects on the work that the deputies are doing here.”

 

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