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By Mara H. Gottfried
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St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

St. Paul police officers were looking for a way for an undercover investigator to infiltrate downtown drug dealing.
They came up with a "brilliant tactical plan" that would allow the plainclothes officer to blend in and appear nonthreatening, Police Chief John Harrington said Monday: They put him in a wheelchair.
The undercover officer bought drugs from more than 140 people over three months, mostly in the areas surrounding the Dorothy Day Center. As of Monday, 108 had been charged, and 50 to 60 more cases were under review, said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.
Although the homeless shelter is across from the Xcel Energy Center, which will host the Republican National Convention in September, Harrington said the undercover operation wasn't done in response to the event.
"This operation is based on community concern, community complaints, and that's what the St. Paul police responds to," Harrington said. "It is irrelevant to me that the RNC is around the corner from this location. ... They're unrelated, although I'm not sure if they were related that it would be a bad thing."
Operation Gridlock is the follow-up to Operation Shamrock, a three-month drug operation in 2007 that focused on bus stops downtown. When police announced the results of Operation Shamrock in June 2007, they reported undercover officers bought drugs from about 100 people.
Almost immediately after Operation Shamrock ended, police heard from the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association and the downtown district council, who asked where the drug dealers went, Harrington said.
"The expectation was that even though we had arrested and done stay-away orders as part of Operation Shamrock, that the drug dealing was simply going to relocate," he said.
Police promised to follow up and soon learned dealers had shifted closer to Interstate 94, Harrington said. Police identified the hot spots and developed a plan to put an undercover officer in an electric wheelchair, he said.
A Pioneer Press review of some of the complaints -- against 48 people and involving 66 drug buys -- filed in Ramsey County District Court showed:
Forty-four involved crack cocaine.
10 involved marijuana. In one case, a man retrieved the marijuana from a baby stroller, with a child inside.
Six involved purported crack, but tests showed the substances weren't drugs.
Three involved heroin.
Two involved prescription drugs.
One was for a balled-up gum wrapper with no drugs inside.
In the case of the purported drugs, prescriptions and gum wrapper, suspects were charged with the sale of a noncontrolled substance.
The intersection where the officer made the most drug buys was St. Peter and Exchange streets, according to the review of complaints. St. Joseph's Hospital is nearby. Police speculate dealers might have thought there were cameras at other intersections and thought St. Peter and Exchange to be a safe place.
Some of the people who tipped off police to the problems were clients of the agencies serving the homeless in that area of downtown, Harrington said.
"Homelessness is a very frightening existence, and many of the people did not feel safe," said Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey, executive director of the Listening House, a drop-in center for homeless people near Dorothy Day.
Some of those charged with selling drugs listed their home address as the Dorothy Day Center, but the majority live in other places, police said.
The operation "helps us ensure the safety we need to provide, especially from predators coming in from the outside," said Tracy Berglund, director of housing for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which runs Dorothy Day.
The initial mission of Operation Gridlock was to "reduce and eliminate the sale of narcotics in the downtown area," Harrington said, "but almost from the very beginning we found out while the narcotics activity was highlighted in the downtown area, it quite literally spread out from there to Frogtown, to the East Side and to the lower Rice Street areas."
The investigation isn't over. Police will follow up on other locations dealers led them to and see where drug patterns move after the cleanup downtown, Harrington said.
Thirty people have been arrested, and police are continuing to try to track down the rest of the suspects, Harrington said.

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