Until this spring, commuters navigating St. Paul bus routes frequently had to run through a gauntlet of street crime. It wasn't uncommon to see a furtive drug deal go down. The occasional fight would break out. On cold days, young thugs would set up shop in the heated shelters and charge shivering passengers a dollar to step inside.
Which is why the St. Paul police—in conjunction with the Metro Transit police and the Metro Gang Strike Force—launched a three-month-long drug sting to purge the stops of riffraff. Dubbed "Operation Shamrock," the venture centered on bus stops on Minnesota and Cedar Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
More than three months after the sweep's conclusion, 113 suspects have been charged with drug-related offenses, and riders are noticing the difference.
"It's like night and day," says Building Owners and Management Association president Curt Milburn, who notified police of the problem after fielding complaints from local property managers. "It's much safer now. You see more people taking the bus. We're breathing a big sigh of relief."
Nick Wesely, a St. Paul resident who takes the 74 route to and from work each day, agrees. "I haven't seen as much bullshit at this stop in the past few months," he says in a dry monotone while waiting at the Fifth and Minnesota stop. "And on the bus, I used to see tobacco clumped in the corners from guys emptying out their blunts. Not so much anymore."
But with Operation Shamrock now in its prosecutorial stage, controversy is brewing over the Ramsey County Attorney's Office's handling of the cases.
In most cases, an offender with a clean record can look forward to a stay of imposition, which knocks the charge down to a gross misdemeanor and entails a probationary period, usually five years. Those caught in Operation Shamrock's net, however, face far stiffer punishments. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner has directed prosecutors to decline any plea negotiations, meaning that even defendants with clean records are facing felonies.
"My colleagues and I are concerned that Susan Gaertner is being extremely overzealous in these cases," says Ramsey County Assistant Public Defender Bruce Wenger, who has represented a number of Operation Shamrock suspects. "The County Attorney's Office is trying these cases uniformly and, as a result, we're not seeing the kind of deals we normally see. We would not encounter this level of unreasonableness if these were individual cases."
Other unusually stringent measures sought by the Attorney's Office include stay-away orders, which ban convicted dealers from much of the downtown area, including the courthouse itself.
"This stands out as one of the few instances in my career that smacks of political overtones," Wenger says.
In January, Gaertner announced that she would run for governor in 2010. Wenger and other defense attorneys accuse her of trying to burnish her law-and-order bona fides at the expense of relatively low-level criminals.
Wenger points to a case involving a 19-year-old who planned on serving in Iraq with the National Guard. The County Attorney's Office prosecuted the case with a rigidity usually reserved for repeat offenders despite the fact that the charge related to "noncontrolled substances"—which is to say, phony drugs. (Under Minnesota statute, selling oregano as marijuana carries the same penalty as selling weed.)
Gaertner dismisses accusations that her handling of the cases is politically motivated.
"Whenever you have police putting significant resources into a specific problem, you need to respond with strong prosecution," she says, adding that this latest sweep is similar to 2003's "Operation Sunrise," during which police arrested more than 100 dealers along University Avenue in St. Paul. "Our handling of those cases was well-received at the time. If it wasn't political then, why would it be political now?"
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