Duluth police look to 'out of the box' solution for repeat drug offenses

A new civilian position, funded by a federal grant, will allow the department to lend a helping hand to those coming out of prison, with the goal of breaking the cycle of incarceration.

Katie McNelis, formerly a probation officer in Montana, was recently hired as project coordinator for the Duluth Police Department's grant-funded Project Safe Neighborhoods. The program seeks to solve the problems of violent crimes, reentry into the community, and recidivism rates. (Steve Kuchera /

When the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force announces a major bust — like the recent case that led to charges against some 50 people — it often garners attention-grabbing headlines and praise for the success in taking dangerous substances off the streets.

But less commonly seen and celebrated are the remaining steps in the criminal justice system.

Cases will work their way through the court system over the course of many months. Some defendants will be convicted. A number will go to prison. And, eventually, they'll get out.

"We've found that many of them have come back to the community and end up being arrested and prosecuted again for the same crime," said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the regional task force. "The recidivism rate is high."

Seeking to tackle that issue, the Duluth Police Department has added a grant-funded program aimed at addressing the needs of people coming out of prison, especially as it relates to addiction.


Katie McNelis started last month as coordinator of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. She hopes to start meeting one-on-one with a caseload of clients next year.

"My focus is really going to be focusing on the individual as a whole, and not the group," McNelis said. "We are all different people, and we all have different needs."

McNelis is currently forming an advisory board that will be tasked with setting parameters for the program, including the development of a risk-assessment evaluation that will focus on an individual's criminogenic needs — the characteristics and problems that relate to a person's likelihood of reoffending.

That can range from barriers as complicated as mental illness and homelessness to the seemingly small issues such as a lack of identifying documents or a cellphone, McNelis said. The goal is to identify the issues and offer resources to resolve them.

"It's a holistic approach to developing a solution to violent crime and substance abuse within our community," McNelis said.

Under Minnesota law, offenders sentenced to prison are required to serve at least two-thirds of their term in custody, with the remaining third to be served as supervised release, or parole. That means they're still subject to various conditions and can be sent back to prison for any violations.

While each of those offenders is assigned a probation officer in the field, McNelis said she sees her role as more of a proactive way to help releasees find success.

"We're here to support them because we don't want them to end up back where they were when they got arrested and went to jail," she said. "We want to break that cycle."


McNelis said the advisory board is expected to include representatives from the police department, Minnesota Department of Corrections, Damiano Center and University of Minnesota Duluth, as well as probation and parole officers, mental health counselors, housing coordinators and more. They're aiming to begin meeting in January.

Katie McNelis talks about some of what she hopes to accomplish as coordinator for the Duluth Police Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, including reducing the likelihood of someone released from custody falling back into trouble. (Steve Kuchera /

Project Safe Neighborhoods is a U.S. Department of Justice initiative that provides local jurisdictions funding to "identify the most pressing violent crime problems in a community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them."

Duluth has received funding for up to $70,000 through next August, though McNelis said the department can seek renewal of the grant to keep the program running beyond that.

"My goal is to make it to where it's a permanent thing, and that it actually makes a difference in the community and it's something that we just can't be without," she said.

The program will add to the Duluth Police Department's growing number of civilian positions aimed at addressing addiction, mental illness and other issues that officials say can't be solved through traditional enforcement strategies alone. For example, the department has a team of social workers who can respond to calls along with officers, as well as an opioid technician to follow up and provide resources for people who suffer from addiction.

Kazel said he's not aware of any other department or task force doing what Duluth is attempting with those released from prison. He called it "totally out of the box."


"It’s insanity to keep doing the same thing and getting the same result," Kazel said. "We're trying something different and trying to reduce recidivism rate, which we think will be good for the community."

McNelis brings a criminal justice background to the position. A former photojournalist in the Navy, she has worked as a juvenile probation officer, emergency medical technician, law enforcement technician and coroner in her home state of Montana.

"Before I did any of that, I was really kind of naïve to the problems within a community," she said. "It really opened my eyes to what needs to be done."

With many details still to be worked out, McNelis said she's looking forward to the challenge of building a unique program from scratch in Duluth.

"It's very, very exciting to take something that hasn't been done before and just really create it, and getting that knowledge and experience from other people as we watch it grow," she said. "Because it's just not one person's vision. It's going to be all of these people on the advisory board putting this together. It truly is a community-based program."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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