Violence-plagued cities send for state police reinforcement
By Jacob R. Clark
The Connecticut State Police has teamed up with the Bridgeport Police Department in what the city’s Police Chief, Thomas Sweeney, termed “a high-profile preventive measure” that was ordered after 10 homicides, most of them drug-related, occurred in a two-week period.
Bridgeport is the latest of several cities to which state police forces have been deployed recently to provide reinforcements aimed at helping local authorities control crime. A year ago, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh sent 50 state troopers to the violence-wracked city of Gary, and the troopers are expected to return by year’s end as part of a multijurisdictional task force announced last month by U.S. Attorney Jon DiGuilio [see sidebar, Page 15]. Since August, Minnesota State Police officers have been helping Minneapolis police put a lid on exploding violent crime in that city. They were due to end their assignment in late October, as this issue of Law Enforcement News was going to press.
Other cities that have had state police or National Guard assistance to battle crime include Camden, N.J., Manchester, N.H., and East St. Louis, Ill. The outgoing president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Concord, N.H., Chief David Walchak, said recently that the deployments of state officers might become a trend in law enforcement, particularly in areas where police resources are tight.
“It’s becoming more and more common,” Walchak told USA Today recently. “The resources aren’t available at the local level to deal with the complex issues in cities today. It’s also reflective of greater cooperation among agencies.”
The State and Bridgeport Emergency Response team (SABER) began Oct. 1 with scores of state troopers deployed to the city located on the Connecticut coast, said a State Police spokesman, Sgt. Dale Hourigan. The effort, approved by Gov. John Rowland at the request of Bridgeport officials, involves various numbers of officers, most of whom are assigned are drawn from the agency’s Western District, which includes Bridgeport, he said, causing little effect on State Police operations elsewhere in the state, he added.
Troopers are conducting traffic checkpoints near major highway exits that lead to areas of the city rife with drug trafficking, which are fed by a steady stream of motorists from the suburbs, officials told LEN.
“A very substantial portion of our drug market is driven by suburbanites,” Sweeney said in a recent LEN interview. “The first series of road checks we ran were right along the Interstate  corridor, generally situated in a manner that placed them between an exit ramp and a drug market. The message to suburban drug buyers is: we welcome everybody [to Bridgeport] except people who want to engage in illegal activity and we don’t welcome them at all.”
Unlike last year’s operation in Gary, where troopers operated independently of city police, Connecticut troopers and Bridgeport police officers are working side by side, noted Sweeney.
It’s not the first joint operation for the two agencies, he added. “We used them in 1992 for the first time because we felt then it was an ideal marriage of the expertise of the State Police, particularly with regard to traffic, and our officers’ knowledge of the city and the players. It was a good balance of the strengths of both organizations and it worked tremendously well.”
State Police also were instrumental in helping the city’s Auto-Theft Task Force bring down the number of vehicle thefts in Bridgeport, which once had one of the highest rates in the nation, Sweeney added. It has also worked on a multijurisdictional anti-gang task force that also includes Federal law enforcement officers, he said.
Bridgeport police have increased patrols in trouble spots around the city, as well as cracked down on quality-of-life crimes and are conducting relentless investigations, Sweeney said. “All of those efforts are Bridgeport police-driven,” he observed. “Those did not involve the troopers.”
While the recent string of murders was a catalyst for the deployment, Sweeney emphasized that the presence of the troopers does not mean that the city, which in the early 1990s broke its homicide record several times, is backsliding into criminal anarchy. “I don’t sense any panic; I don’t have any reason for panic. That’s why I have a strong reaction on the issue of a crime wave. It isn’t there,” Sweeney added.
“We are at a very low point in overall crime in the city and we want to keep it that way,” he said, noting that Part I crimes have fallen to under 11,000 in the last three years compared to 17,500 in 1991. “We’re down 43 percent. The level has been flat, and we’ll end this year flat or slightly down for the third year in a row. In the area of gun violence, I’m expecting a 20 percent to 25 percent decline in robberies involving firearms this year. That’s down 70 percent from the 1991 high.”
As for the rash of murders in late September, Sweeney said, “There’s no specific pattern by season we’ve been able to identify. It fluctuates and does so pretty radically. It has shown very erratic variation and we did not regard this an anything tremendously out of the ordinary.”
Hourigan said road checks have produced “excellent results so far.” As of Oct. 11, the operation had resulted in 54 criminal arrests, 649 motor vehicle arrests, 193 motor vehicles towed, 14 DWI arrests, four stolen vehicles recovered, five handguns and 33 cloned cell phones, $2,700 and various amounts of drugs seized. “Even if we take one weapon off the street, it’s a success,” he added.
The operation will continue for the time being, Hourigan said. “We may review our deployment and maybe de-escalate the numbers somewhat, but it’s up to the Governor whether to extend it.”
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis last month, a contingent of 15 troopers attached to the Minnesota State Patrol’s Special Response Team was preparing to end its two-month-long assignment assisting the Police Department. The unit, along with five members of the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which has extensive training in carrying out search warrants and making drug arrests, was ordered to the city by Gov. Arne Carlson on Aug. 23 to help local police combat a tide of violent crime, which has resulted in a near-record 73 homicides as of Oct. 11.
The city recorded an all-time high 97 homicides last year.
As part of the anti-crime strategy, each day one trooper was assigned to work with the Police Department’s emergency response unit, said team commander Lieut. Kim Klawiter. “They do nothing but conduct search warrants all day. The rest of the troopers are deployed in North and South Minneapolis, making drug and prostitution arrests, responding to gun and shots-fired calls and riding along with Minneapolis officers on patrol,” he told LEN.
Police Chief Robert Olson said the troopers, who have no arrest powers off the state’s highways, did not work independently, but were paired with city officers. “We had to be careful there,” he said.
The troopers have assisted city police in hundreds of drug arrests, seized hundreds of guns and helped nab several homicide suspects, said Klawiter. Olson added that one of those apprehended is a suspect in the serial killings of four prostitutes.
While Klawiter said the State Patrol has yet to evaluate the effect of the effort, Olson said he believes it had little impact on the city’s crime rate.
“The patterns for this period have been pretty much what they normally are, but that really shouldn’t be the determiner,” he said. “The way I look at it is that there are a lot of things that could have happened that may not have, which you can never be able to account for.”
Still, Olson said he was grateful for the help. ”We have a program involving our community response teams who target guns, street-level drug dealing and quality-of-life offenses that lead to violence. We had that in place all summer, then suddenly, here are 12 additional bodies to plug into that, which was great. We just plugged them into the existing program, and they’ve certainly given us a hand.”
To offset the drain on the State Patrol’s resources, Klawiter said SRT members were drawn from all over the state and overtime was offered to cover shortages of personnel.
Olson expressed hope that the worst is behind the city and its besieged police. He said the agency will get an infusion of as many as 50 new officers in coming months to help “pick up the slack.”
“The two months the troopers have been here have given us a nice shot in the arm,” the Chief said, “and we’ll have a little lull in [criminal] activity when old man winter hits.”