VADNAIS HEIGHTS — Visitors who arrive in the parking lots of Vadnais-Snail Lakes Regional Park may notice the “sea of broken glass” in the words of Mayor Heidi Gunderson—evidence of a darker underbelly to these beautiful outdoor spaces.
In 2020, there were 46 thefts from vehicles within Vadnais-Snail Lakes Regional Park—a steep jump from last year’s total of 2.
The issue was brought to the council’s attention by Councilmember Greg Urban, who noticed an abundance of crimes reported by community members on Facebook and the neighborhood networking website Nextdoor. Councilmembers discussed the problem with representatives from Ramsey County Parks and Recreation and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office at a Feb. 16 workshop meeting.
“We’re dealing with kind of a perfect storm this year because not only are people out of work and in an economic downturn, people are also new to the parks because there’s nothing else to do,” said Kristopher Lencowski, director of park operations for Ramsey County Parks. Unwary visitors, who often travel far from the parking lot while using the park, can create a tempting situation for a would-be thief looking to smash windows and steal credit cards or electronics.
Vadnais Heights is not the only community affected by a drastic spike in thefts—the trend has been nationwide during the past year, said Ramsey County Undersheriff Jeff Ramacher. The reasons are manifold. First and foremost, the pandemic has changed day-to-day life for millions. Kids who are not in school are bored and some become involved in criminal activities, Ramacher said. Other people have lost jobs and have become dependent on criminal activity to make ends meet. There is also a general change of attitude toward law enforcement, felt keenly in and around Minneapolis due to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a law enforcement officer last summer. This shift has emboldened some criminals.
Thefts from vehicles and carjackings are some of the most concerning incidents from last year. Ramacher believes incidents like these started in the heart of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and are now expanding outward to the edges of the metro.
“We had [a carjacking] last week in the city of Little Canada in broad daylight in minus 15 degree weather, on a Monday, during the day, in an area that we typically don’t see crime of that nature,” Ramacher said.
A top concern for police is the high trend in theft of catalytic converters, taken from the underside of parked vehicles. At least two Ramsey County squad cars have been targeted this way, and are now out of commission with up to a six month wait for new catalytic converters due to a nationwide shortage. Ramacher expressed frustration with a lack of legislation making this type of crime more difficult to carry out.
“Scrapyards will buy catalytic converters from these folks and they don’t have to register them, they just hand them over for a couple hundred bucks and they turn around and are probably selling them back to the people that got it stolen from in the first place,” he said.
The criminal justice system has also taken a hit from COVID-19, with court cases handled over Zoom and backlogs of lower-priority cases, shared City Attorney Eric Hartmann.
Two things are certain about the people perpetrating theft in the Vadnais Heights area: they are young, and they are not from Vadnais Heights. Most of the suspects were in the 15-25 age range, and that many of them are coming from other communities and banding together in organized rings, according to Ramsey County Water Patrol Deputy Jeremy Bolen-Knutson.
“In the last 5 years, I’ve dealt with victims from Vadnais Heights, but I’ve never had a suspect from Vadnais Heights,” he said.
Juvenile offenders are often released from custody within a short period of time. This is a source of frustration for law enforcement that has worsened under the conditions of COVID-19, which aim to reduce the number of people inside detention facilities.
Cameras are one of the best deterrents against crime and one of the most crucial tools in solving crimes when they happen, Ramacher said. But cost to the city and county can be a huge consideration, especially when the parks do not have easy access to a power source capable of keeping a camera running. Some cameras are solar powered, but Bolen-Knutson explained these can be unreliable at times of year when the days are shorter and there’s not enough sunlight to power them. Ramsey County has a mobile camera trailer that it moves from park to park to discourage and monitor criminal activity, but Lencowski likened this strategy to a playing a game of “whack-a-mole.”
“You’ve got no crime in one place because there’s a camera there; meanwhile they’re in another place,” he said.
Deputies patrolling the parks pay particular attention to whether valuables are visible in parked cars, and sometimes leave an informational flyer to let citizens know this can make them a target for theft. But with six deputies assigned to patrolling 22 county parks, resources are spread thin.
“What I would recommend is a permanent hardwired camera system,” Ramacher said.
COVID-19 has tightened budgets for just about everyone, but Ramacher said there may be options to partner with the city through capital improvement programs. He plans for the sheriff’s department to conduct research into establishing local camera registries and grant programs that would help fund security cameras for nearby homes and businesses.
The councilmembers and experts discussed a few other alternatives, such as increased signage and public awareness, added lighting, false cameras and retired squad cars, but consensus was that a security camera would be the most effective tool. In the near future, Councilmember Urban said he’d like the city to work on getting a camera system installed in at least one park location, with the possibility of expanding from there.
“I know our parks have had a lot of use this year,” Urban said. “A lot of people want to get outside, and that’s a great thing. We have probably the nicest park in the Twin Cities here with Vadnais and Sucker Lake Park. It’s something we want people to use and feel safe using.”
For the time being, Lencowski and the representatives from the sheriff’s department encourage citizens to stay aware, and not to leave valuables visible inside parked cars when visiting local parks.