When Janesville police announced a suspect was in custody in a stabbing death last week, they said the suspect was someone they had been worried about.
Police knew Julian D. Collazo was new to Janesville, a gang member from Texas. Police had known about him for a little more than three months. He was one of about 55 people police kept track of as part of a program intended to prevent crime.
Police keep files on these people even though they are not current suspects. The fear is they are likely to commit serious crimes.
The list is a tool of a police working group called the High-Risk Offender Abatement Team.
“This group allows us to keep citizens safe from what we believe are the greatest threats in the community,” said Police Chief Dave Moore.
Police talk about targeting “hot spots, hot groups and hot people.”
Collazo was one of those hot people.
Collazo’s name and association with the Southwest Cholos gang had been distributed to patrol officers. But Collazo hadn’t been in town long enough for officers to do more than that, and the fact that Collazo was homeless didn’t help matters, Moore said.
Collazo has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Christine H. Scaccia-Lubeck, 43, in her home, probably on Dec. 8.
Police had a few contacts with Collazo. They cited him for underage drinking and arrested him for shoplifting in recent months.
“Those incidents didn’t lead us to think he was going to go out and kill someone,” said Sgt. Aaron Ellis, one of the team’s supervisors.
But ideally, officers make contact with everyone on the list, warning them that police know who they are and what they are doing.
Police also offer a carrot with the stick: They offer help in getting into more positive activities, whether it be helping a gang member or habitual criminal leave that life, or helping teens find positive activities, Ellis said.
“We have no problem just reaching out to these people and saying, ‘This is what we know about your past’ and, ‘Let’s work on making you a better person,” Ellis said.
Those contacts help when a serious crime does occur. Police can check with the people on the list as they try to solve the case and track down suspects, Ellis said.
“Occasionally, we do need to lean on these folks,” Ellis said.
Motorcycle gang members have felt comfortable enough to let police know that they’re having a meeting in the city, so police will work with members and tavern owners to make sure the meeting stays peaceful, Ellis said.
The team has been around since 2006, but its name and focus have changed over time. Members at first focused on gangs but realized that people who have potential to do violence and other serious crime are not just gang members, Ellis said.
Addresses of those on the list are all over the city, Ellis said.
This is different than what some other police agencies do when they keep intelligence files on those suspected of being habitual criminals, Moore said.
Janesville’s effort includes information-sharing meetings that include probation and parole agents and Janesville school authorities. Surrounding agencies are sometimes brought into discussions, as well.
Officials meet once a month to share information.
The agents and school officials will tip police off if they think someone is a candidate for the watch list.
Police information will flow to the agents and school officials, as well, Ellis said.
“It has worked well for us, and I think it’s probably a little bit unique in nature, where many other jurisdictions probably don’t share that information,” Ellis said.
Those on the list generally have a history of frequent arrests or other police contact, or they are known to have gang or drug associations.
Sometimes, all it takes is a tip from probation/parole agents that someone with a criminal history has moved into the area, Ellis said.
Or a school official will tell police that a new student has been telling classmates that he was in a gang in Chicago or that a student has been drawing gang images on assignments or notebooks.
Hot groups can be gangs or more informal associations. For example, police learned of a group of youths who were stealing from cars and committing other petty crimes downtown last summer.
Police reached out to the juveniles’ parents and the kids themselves, telling them they knew what they were doing and offering organized activities, such as summer school, to keep them from being bored, Ellis said.
Hot spots are places where crimes occur frequently. Past hot spots have been houses, bars, the Milton Avenue circuit and two parks on the west side, Fourth Ward and Bond, Ellis said.
Police will make sure officers visit those places frequently, sometimes adding foot or bicycle patrols.
A current hot spot is a gas station at the Five Points intersection on the west side, where people have been dealing drugs outside the store, Ellis said.
Police make frequent visits and drive-bys of the gas station in an effort to suppress that activity.
That’s what it’s all about: focusing police resources on the troublemakers and trouble spots, Moore said.
The idea is that a small number of people are responsible for most of the serious crime, so focusing on those is a more efficient way to use officers’ time, Moore said.
The police hot-people files also help if someone on the list is arrested, Moore said. Police will deliver information to the district attorney’s office, which helps prosecutors make better arguments for setting higher bail.
Higher bail tends to keep people in jail while they await trial. The courts can justify higher bail amounts if the accused has few ties to the community or has a history of violence or of not showing up for court hearings.
But as one public defender recently said at a bail hearing, high bail amounts will keep poor people in jail, while rich people can afford to pay their way to freedom. That’s been a hot discussion lately in the criminal justice system both locally and nationally.
Rock County officials have discussed changing the way bail is set, but no major changes have been made yet.
For police, however, keeping people with a history of serious crime in jail—even before they are found guilty—reduces the threat to the public.
The number of people on the list stays fairly stable, Ellis said, because people are often added and dropped.
State law requires files to be purged after 10 years if police have had no further contact with a person, Moore said.
And sometimes, people go straight.
“Just because they had a bad run doesn’t make ’em a bad person, so we go through and take people off the watch list every so often. That’s the goal,” Ellis said.