MARION — When three police officers and two high-risk unit probation officers in unmarked vehicles rolled up on two young men outside a tobacco outlet Thursday, the two men were understandably unnerved.
But it quickly became apparent to the men — who have had previous run-ins with the law — that this was no ordinary interaction with police.
Marion Officer Mitch Walser, who has had dealings with the men before, told them the authorities were there as part of a community service project and asked how they were doing.
One said he was having trouble with a job.
“Is there anything we can do to help you?” Walser asked, before handing him a card with information about resources for housing, food, employment and other needs. “We’re trying to make sure you guys stay out of jail and don’t get shot or killed.”
Elsewhere throughout Linn County on Wednesday and Thursday, similar scenarios played out again and again, with teams of officers making contacts with people who had been identified as having been involved with violent crimes or associated with those committing those crimes.
The message to each was clear: We know who are, we know what you’re up to, and we want you to get the help you need to avoid getting into trouble with the law.
“Sometimes it just takes a single break to get someone out of that life,” Walser said.
This week’s operation — which involved more than 40 representatives from the Cedar Rapids and Marion police departments, Linn County Sheriff’s Office, Iowa Department of Public Safety, U.S. Attorney’s Office, 6th Judicial District Probation and Parole staff and the U.S. Marshals Service — was dubbed Operation Clean Sweep.
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It was the latest phase in an unusual approach to law enforcement that Marion Police Chief Joseph McHale brought to the area when he was hired last year — an approach known as social network analysis.
Under that approach, Marion, Cedar Rapids and Linn County pooled their reports of violent crimes spanning the last two years. Those reports were analyzed by researchers who determined who in the area was involved with violent crime and who they associated with.
The links were used to create a map of sorts tracking violent incidents, offenders and their associates — forming a list of 170 people police wished to contact.
“This wasn’t just a ‘wake up and go after anybody’ sort of operation,” McHale said. “We look at the relationships of people and their involvement in violent crime.”
But rather than arrest the people they identified, McHale said four teams of five officers each were tasked with delivering a message.
“We care about you,” he said. “We want to keep you safe, alive and out of prison.”
Marion police public information officer Tom Daubs said the idea is finding out what is leading people to commit crimes and getting those people resources needed to lead a “stable life.”
“We’d rather help them than handcuff them,” Daubs said. “As a cop, the last thing we want to do is arrest them.”
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That said, those police contacted were advised they’d face arrest if they continue to break the law. And departments involved did use the opportunity to detain people who had warrants.
Preliminary statistics released Thursday show the operation resulted in 11 arrests, one search warrant, 85 residence checks and 26 people provided social services information.
McHale used the social network analysis approach successfully when he worked for the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department. Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said when McHale interviewed for the Marion chief position, he and Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman were interested in replicating social network analysis in Linn County.
“We’re hoping that by making these notifications that we put people on notice,” Gardner said. “We’re aware of the extent of your criminal activity, we’re aware of your associations with people committing similar offenses and we’re putting you on notice. You’re under the microscope now.”
McHale said Operation Clean Sweep has brought law enforcement agencies in the county together and has them using their intelligence gathering collaboratively. That’s important since criminals don’t always stick to their own communities when committing crimes, he said. He said the agencies will continue to collaborate, though not necessarily always on a large scale.
“You can’t police geographically anymore,” McHale said. “You have to look at the people.”
For Walser, a 10-year veteran of the Marion department, the social network analysis approach is a new tactic for him and he admits he initially was skeptical.
Those feelings changed after a couple of days of interactions.
“Their responses were really positive,” Walser said. “I think every one of them shook our hands.”
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