ST. PAUL -- At one St. Paul liquor store that was burglarized, looted and set on fire in May, hundreds of people stole items in a nearly seven-hour period. An insurance adjuster estimated $300,000 worth of inventory was taken.
Prosecutors recently charged a 23-year-old St. Paul woman with felony burglary, saying she entered Snelling Avenue Fine Wines six times and left with stolen merchandise in each instance. She’s also accused of burglarizing the Walgreens on Grand Avenue and Big Top Liquors and Sun Foods at University Avenue and Dale Street the same day.
Since the St. Paul Police Department’s Civil Unrest Investigative Taskforce began its work, the Ramsey County attorney’s office has brought charges in more than 60 cases, including against the 23-year-old woman. Approximately 40 more cases are in the pipeline for charging, said Cmdr. Axel Henry, who leads the task force.
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, there was widespread arson and looting in Minneapolis and then St. Paul, primarily on May 28 in the capital city.
The St. Paul task force previously released surveillance photos of suspects and asked the public for tips, and in recent weeks they’ve doubled down on those efforts. The department is regularly posting suspect photos on social media and requesting people with information to come forward.
While the majority of the cases haven’t been solved with tips, Henry said he cannot emphasize enough how helpful they are.
“It is a really good illustration that this isn’t a police problem, this is a community problem,” he said. “We’re a part of that community, so we work together.”
There have been a couple instances of people seeing themselves in surveillance photos posted by St. Paul police and contacting the department, Henry said.
An investigator reported one person was in the background of a photo — not the suspect in the forefront — “and the individual called up and said, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ ” Henry said. “They were not involved in a more serious thing and we complimented them on coming forward and being honest.”
Those cases were discussed with charging attorneys, and because the people weren’t involved in serious crimes, decisions were made not to charge them.
The task force isn’t focusing on low-level crimes — “we were not set up to try to give everyone a bunch of tickets … for trespassing or taking a candy bar,” Henry said, but they continue to pursue cases against those involved in the most damage and theft.
Investigations will continue
The police department moved eight investigators from various units, along with a crime analyst, to launch the task force in June. Some of the investigators have been doing double duty, while others have had to put their regular assignments on the back burner, Henry said.
“We’re slowly going to have to start going back to some form of normality,” Henry said, which means they’ll be rolling back the task force’s work over the next two to four weeks.
The investigations into looting and property damage won’t end, though, Henry said. The department’s crimes against property unit will continue to work on the cases with support from task force members, who will have returned to their full-time assignments.
Henry said he underestimated how much public support there would be for the task force. People have told them they’re pleased the department is taking the crimes seriously “and advocating for these businesses,” Henry said.