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Little-known police unit targets Woodbury crime trends

Woodbury police officer Chris Rheault patrols the city on April 26, as part of the department's Street Crimes Unit.1 / 2
Woodbury police officers Chris Rheault (left) and Chris Ployhart comprise two of the department's four Street Crimes Unit members. The team concentrates on crime trends around the city2 / 2

Chris Rheault admits he was a skeptic.

As a Woodbury patrol officer, he had heard about the department's Street Crimes Unit and wondered if it was just a bunch of cops hanging around in parking lots waiting for crimes to be committed.

But Rheault said that perception got turned on its head last year after he began a one-year stint with the unit as part of a career development opportunity with the department. He said working with the little-known team has given him special insight on how to be more investigative and proactive as a police officer.

Call him a convert.

"It's opened my eyes," the 11-year department veteran said. "Street Crimes does a lot more than I thought they did. I do think Street Crimes has a place in this department."

Within the last few months, the unit has expanded from two officers to four -- three detectives and a sergeant -- who carry out its mission: addressing crime trends in the city and doing proactive policing.

The crew focuses on things like thefts from motor vehicles, shoplifting and prostitution: crimes that patrol officers often don't have time to investigate, and, conversely, things that often don't reach the threshold for the department's investigations unit.

Street Crimes aims to solve that paradox.

"Our unit essentially bridges the gap between patrol and investigations," said detective Sgt. Brett Billmeyer, who heads up Street Crimes.

Woodbury's Street Crimes Unit started up about five years ago after detective Chris Ployhart came to the department after working for years with the Washington County Sheriff's Department's narcotics unit.

He said he recognized a need for a go-between presence on the force that could "head off problems," so he pitched the police chief on the idea.

The unit has had the green light ever since.

Positively proactive

A typical week begins with a game plan, Billmeyer explained. Going off trends established by data, the team maps out a focus and plans a strategy.

But when the rubber meets the road, things don't always travel in straight lines for Street Crimes. Steve Hane, a detective in the unit, said they could foil a retail theft ring on a Tuesday, but soon learn it's connected to identity theft that pulls them off in a different direction by Wednesday.

"A little thing can just spiral into something big," Hane said. "That's just from going out there and being proactive."

Adaptability, he and other team members have learned, is paramount.

"You have to be able to adapt," Ployhart said.

That's why the team carries a light caseload. The goal is to find criminals, so unlike patrol officers, the Street Crimes Unit isn't called away for anything that isn't urgent.

So if Hane develops a suspect he thinks could be connected to others in a theft ring, he has the luxury of being able to follow that person. Maybe see who his associates are. Maybe see if they're connected to crimes in Woodbury.

On occasion, those dots connect.

"Getting into Street Crimes has shown me there is some pretty cool police work," Rheault said.

Team members listed off a number of successes, most of which stemmed from minor things that became notable: a problematic property that turned up drug warrants leading to the arrest of a felon in possession of a firearm; a theft-from-motor-vehicle incident that led to the arrest of a man involved in a metrowide crime ring; a traffic stop of a suspicious car that contained stolen merchandise from a local retailer.

And, Ployhart pointed out, you never know what criminal activity is going to bring from day to day -- despite the game plan.

Take retail theft, for instance. He said trends vary from week to week. One week thieves will be rolling high-end vacuum cleaners out of stores. The next week, it's baby formula. The next: BluRay DVDs.

Ployhart said it's all about black market economics: If vacuums are drawing high resale value on the street, the demand goes up among crooks looking to cash in. And, in turn, the supply goes down among retailers.

Warding that off means establishing solid lines of communication with loss prevention officials at the stores most commonly hit, Ployhart said.

"We've built a very good relationship with the Targets and the Walmarts," he said.

Same goes with construction sites, which Hane keeps tabs on.

When crews show up on work sites for new subdivisions in Woodbury, Hane will go out and talk with the foremen to learn when copper pipes -- a hot commodity for thieves who often cut it out and resell the copper -- will be delivered. That communication has led to the arrest of at least one person caught in the act, Hane said.

Ultimately, the department wants members of the Street Crimes Unit to rotate back into patrol, where they can deploy the skills they've learned and share them with other officers.

Rheault, for one, can't wait.

"I will take this back to patrol," he stressed. "It'll make our department a more proactive department."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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