Cops crack down on booze

This fall, a team of University police officers aims to cut down on alcohol-related crimes.

Nick Wicker

From inside a Dinkytown home Saturday, the only sounds challenging the house’s speaker system were drunken shouts and the buzz of conversation as the party drove steadily through the night, backlit by green and purple strobe lights.

Less than a quarter-block away, on the corner of 10th Avenue Southeast and Sixth Street Southeast, strobes were met with police lights and the thud of hip-hop bass was given a whining siren topcoat.

An ambulance rushed to carry away an injured motorcycle driver who had been hit by a red sedan. But the party didn’t stop.

Sgt. Jim Nystrom, leader of the University of Minnesota Police Department’s Coordinated Response Team, pulled up in an unmarked vehicle as a support unit. Nystrom leads the team’s three officers, who work mainly in shadows, driving unmarked vehicles and at times wearing plain clothes.

While last fall the team narrowed in on tackling near-campus robberies, it re-tailored its goal for this fall, Nystrom said, and is cracking down on open container violations, underage drinking and public intoxication using discrete observation and citation tactics.

When the team responded to an area near the Dinkytown party Saturday night, less than 10 minutes passed before a pair of college-age men ambled down the sidewalk, open beer bottles in hand. Soon after, Nystrom wrote them a citation for an open container violation.

Over the first weekend of the semester, UMPD issued more than 90 alcohol-related citations, according to a public safety update sent Friday by Vice President for University Services Pamela Wheelock.

Under the cover of Saturday night

Nystrom began the night of Black Saturday — the day he said new sorority members party for the first time after rushing and wear black dresses that make them easily identifiable — by rolling in an unmarked vehicle past fraternity row, the Superblock and Dinkytown.

He said he was on the lookout for individuals showing signs of public drunkenness, minor consumption or open containers.

Driving in civilian-style vehicles makes it easier for CRT officers to scope out such alcohol violations, Nystrom said. In the back of his car, a pair of crutches serves as a potential disguise.

Some of the team’s members have specialized training, including Special Weapons and Tactics negotiation training, which Nystrom utilized during an incident Saturday.

Around 11 p.m., a belligerent individual was loudly protesting his friend’s citation and said he had the right to ignore officers’ orders to stay quiet.

Nystrom called in officer Josh Betts to handle what Nystrom described as a patience-testing “street lawyer.”

“It helps me calm down,” Betts said of the negotiation training.

Throughout the night, the sight of a uniformed police officer emerging from an unmarked vehicle to issue citations turned heads.

When members of the CRT jump into action, they radio for backup squad cars — both to avoid confusion and to stand by for potential arrests, since the covert vehicles are used only for surveillance and aren’t equipped with the barriers needed to transport arrestees.

Back-to-school citation spike

The new, enhanced enforcement initiative is aimed at keeping students safe, Nystrom said, adding that most of more than 90 citations issued in the start of September came between 10 p.m. and midnight.

At the beginning of the semester, he said, more students are sent to the hospital for alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related problems, with about two to three students hospitalized over the average weekend.

It’s also an event-packed season, he said, so during those months, CRT and other UMPD officers patrol not only campus, but venture to the Dinkytown, Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods.

Residence halls’ community advisers have also worked with UMPD to develop in-house alcohol enforcement techniques, freeing up officers to focus on off-campus areas.

“The campus is usually our focus, but the people are our focus too — and the people are off campus,” Nystrom said. “We try to supplement the Minneapolis police, with their blessing.”

While upholding safety is his job’s main focus, Nystrom said the under-the-radar nature of CRT’s operations means they simultaneously surveil while they patrol.

During one encounter Saturday, Nystrom stopped two individuals but didn’t issue a citation. Instead, he noted their behavior and vehicle description in case it became relevant in the future.

As the weather turns bitterly cold, he said, late-night crime tends to dip. Until then, his team will continue staking out campus crime invisible to the casual observer.

“It’s really about social engineering, changing behavior,” Nystrom said. “So that someone will make a better choice and nothing bad happens to anyone.”