ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Late afternoon in the city. School has just let out. Police officer Isaac Palmer, sitting in an unmarked black SUV with his partner, must carefully and quickly get across town during rush hour. With lights on and sirens blaring, they speed down neighborhood streets to avoid traffic but keep a close eye out as school buses are nearby.
“We gotta pay attention for that, we got kids out here,” Palmer says, as his eyes darted back and forth when approaching the next intersection.
The officers are on their way to an apartment complex after a 911 caller said a man pulled a gun on her, with ‘gun’ being the key word. When they arrive, several other officers from his specialty unit are already on scene, as well as patrol officers.
“We got a busy apartment complex. We have a busy time of day. We have school buses out here. We are gonna come as many as we can,” he says.
Officer Palmer is part of the police department’s Gang Gun Unit, a name clearly designating its priorities. The unit is comprised of nearly 30 officers.
“Our goal is any weapons related calls, we go to,” he says.
Often, those illegal firearms are in the hands of gangs. Police say there are at least 40 gangs in St. Paul, totaling between 650 and 900 members. Officer Palmer says the gangs are more “loose,” with members making their own decision instead of relying structure and a hierarchy.
“We are going with precision after those who we believe are gonna pull the trigger or be the victims of gun violence in our city,” Chief Todd Axtell says.
That’s why Officer Palmer’s unit is often at the forefront of St. Paul’s gun violence problem, quickly getting to shooting scenes to assist patrol officers and detectives.
“Through our intel gathering, through our arrests, through investigations, sometimes we might just know more information about somebody, nick names, monikers, anything like that, which sometimes can be beneficial,” he says.
His day is a mixed bag of tasks, ranging from responding to weapons calls to patrolling areas where gang activity is known to happen. On this shift, they’re specifically traveling along the Rice Street corridor in search of evidence and people possibly connected to a recent deadly shooting. Officer Palmer is quick to note that a building nearby was recently condemned, dropping 911 calls related to guns in the area dramatically.
GUN VIOLENCE RISING
Chief Todd Axtell says less than 1% of St. Paul’s population is involved in the city’s gun violence. So far in 2019, 26 of the 29 homicides in the city involved a gun. The previous record for gun homicides in a year was 18 back in the 1990s.
Many cases are connected to gang activity.
“It’s various groups gangs and young groups of people. And I say gangs because that’s how they refer to themselves as gangs,” Axtell says.
Near Dale Street and St. Anthony Avenue, a memorial marks the spot where Shawn D. Jones was shot the death in October.
Investigators charged Marcus Anthony Baker with murder, stating he shot Jones after Jones’s associates recorded a music video in this area taunting Baker’s gang. Court documents show surveillance cameras near the crime scene and throughout the city helped investigators track down the vehicle involved in the shooting, which led them to Baker.
Homicide arrests can get guns off the street, but so too can simple traffic stops. Palmer pulled a driver over because his license plate light was out. The driver was driving home from work and given a warning. Not all stops go so smoothly.
Earlier this month, the Gang Gun Unit pulled a car over near Lawson Avenue and Edgerton Street for running a stop sign. The vehicle had just left a “problem property” that the officers were conducting surveillance on, according to court documents.
When the Gang Gun Unit pulled over driver Anthony Irving Simpson, they noticed a gun in his jacket pocket. When asked about it, Simpson admitted it was a gun and hit the gas pedal. The car was still in park. The officers were able to pull him out of the driver’s side door and arrest him.
“Maybe we prevented a shooting that night, we prevented a victim of gun violence just taking that one firearm off the street,” Palmer says.
The Gang Gun Unit is trained to memorize faces, names, unique markings such as tattoos, essentially people with criminal histories. It allows them to keep tabs on their movements. As Palmer passes a liquor store along University Avenue, he scans the crowd standing outside and quickly recognizes a man with a criminal past. Once parked nearby, he asks his partner to check if the man they recognized had any active warrants. When they learn he has no active warrants, they drive back past the liquor store. The crowd filling the sidewalk and street has left, but Palmer’s eyes once again dart back and forth.
“Just doing a visual check as we ride by. I’m gonna remember that (license) plate and this plate, and this plate. I’m gonna just try to throw them in memory just in case,” he says.
That memorization is a helpful skill, but Palmer says his unit still needs the community’s help.
“If we’re getting anonymous tips that (a person) has a firearm, maybe he wasn’t on our radar. Maybe they needed to be on our radar and we’re gonna start monitoring that person,” he says.
Later in the evening, a call comes over the radio about a possible person who had been shot at an apartment downtown. Palmer and his partner are just finishing up a patrol in an area known for gang activity, quickly flipping on their lights as they accelerate past the Capitol.
“I can tell you that we’ve been very busy as a unit,” he says, of the past several weeks. “It’s so scary how many guns can be on the street and with indiscriminate firing, that’s terrifying.”
Despite his concerns, he still believes St. Paul is a safe city. He’s just working to make it safer.