Crime in Rochester a problem of perception versus reality

Rochester park
The city of Rochester installed a light at a park in northwest Rochester following a request by neighborhood residents to deter park visitors after the posted 11 p.m. closing time.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

Todd Hager walks through knee-high snow to a playground that sits on the top of a small hill in the city's Cimarron neighborhood, a few blocks away from where a number of driveby shootings stunned city residents in 2008 and 2009.

It's a Friday night, and on a piece of playground equipment, he spots some spray-painted marks he hadn't seen before. The tags and graffiti could be gang signs. That couldn't be more frustrating for Hager, vice president of his homeowner's association in northwest Rochester.

"God, this is a nice park," said Hager, who became involved in his community after the shootings. "Can't we just have something nice without somebody wrecking it? Please? It's disheartening."

Crime is a hot topic in Rochester these days, even though the city's crime rate has dropped in the past decade. While the population is up 21 percent, most individual crime reporting categories have remained virtually static. But city and police officials say the perception of crime in Rochester is actually getting worse.

Much of that has to do with much-publicized violent crime. In 2009, 24 of the 142 assaults in Rochester involved someone pulling a trigger. The record number of shootings killed one person and injured 23.

REALITY VS. PERCEPTION

Like other residents, Hager wants outsiders to know that overall, Rochester remains a very safe city -- one consistently ranked among the best places to live in the United States.

But he laments that the graffiti, drugs and gangs present in Rochester are quickly transforming his way of life. His reality now includes locking his doors and double-checking his garage every night, something he never worried about before.

Todd Hager
Todd Hager, a homeowner who started a neighborhood watch group after several high-profile drive-by shootings in 2009 keeps an eye on the neighborhood he lives in.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

"Sometimes I think I have a very big gap between reality and my perception," Hager said. "I perceive a greater danger than there probably really is."

He has plenty of company. The perception that crime is running rampant in Rochester is shared by many, particularly those in middle-class neighborhoods.

Walter Bush doesn't share that view. Bush, 51, works for Next Chapter Ministries, a non-profit that helps felons get back on their feet after they've done time.

Ten years ago, he was on the other side of the system, arrested in Rochester for selling crack cocaine. He served two years in prison.

At the Next Chapter Ministries' group home, Bush and two dozen other men gather for a weekly dinner and Bible study group. Bush knows a lot of the men from his visits with them in prison. He meets with men who are behind bars at a handful of jails and detention centers around southeast Minnesota a few times a week.

From his perspective, what's happening on the streets in Rochester hasn't changed much since he was selling drugs in 2001.

"It's still pretty much a lot of the same old people doing the same old thing," he said. "They got little gangs here, but that's not really the problem. The gangs are really not controlling anything. ... The gang members here are wannabe gang members. They couldn't make it in the Cities, so they came here."

What has changed, Bush said, are the city's population and the people committing the crimes -- two things that Rochester is still grappling with.

"One or two murders a year, this is something that this town is not used to," he said. "It's a lot of things that are going on that wasn't going on, but that's because of the growth of the city. It's just more people now."

TWO FACTORS: GROWTH AND RACE

Rochester and Olmsted County have changed significantly since 2000. The city grew by 21 percent in the last decade to 103,000 residents.

Rochester also is much more racially and ethnically diverse.

Walter Bush, Men's Ministries Coordinator
Walter Bush is the Men's Ministries Coordinator. He became involved at Next Chapter Ministries in 2001 after meeting Andy Kilen in a Bible study at the Olmsted County Jail. The support group brings together released prisoners and church members.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

Demographic estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 10.4 percent of Olmsted County residents do not speak English as their primary language at home. That's up 6 percent since 2000. Olmsted County is among the eight most diverse counties in the state.

Police records show Rochester's overall crime rate has gone down for 15 years. In fact, violent crime alone declined 7 percent during the first seven months of 2010.

But Police Chief Roger Peterson said when people think about crime in Rochester, two factors play a major role: growth and race.

"We're not going to be a small town anymore, and we're never going to be an all-white town anymore like we were 35 years ago," he said.

Peterson said his 134-member police department is caught in a hard place. On one hand, he wants his officers to try to prevent crime and respond to legitimate safety concerns from residents. On the other, he said the messages people receive from media reports about crimes and those who commit them lead some to believe the city is a much more dangerous place than it really is.

"When people see that those people charged or arrested are frequently people of color, they begin to associate minorities with crime," Peterson said. "And that's where their perception of safety comes from. The reality is, the dynamic we're actually dealing with...is that the common denominators are poverty, illiteracy, addiction -- those kinds of issues that don't have anything to do with race."

Mark Christopherson leading prayer
Mark Christopherson, far right, leads a group for prayer at Next Chapter Ministries in Rochester. The support group brings together released prisoners and church members. Next Chapter Ministries includes three residential aftercare homes, support for families of prisoners, mentoring for high risk youth, and a neighborhood outreach for children.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

Such problems aren't exclusive to any race.

"But those are the issues we're dealing with," Peterson said. "And we're dealing with those issues certainly at a disproportionate number with people of color in our community and across the country."

One of the areas where Peterson's officers encounter the conditions that contribute to crime is the southeast side of town.

Late one night, Officer Teresa Frissora drives into an apartment complex in Meadow Park that's been a hot spot for gang activity in recent years. The department has identified 13 active gangs in the city, and as many as 1,000 gang members of varied age, race and ethnicity.

"You get all sorts of activity here," Frissora said. "There's drugs, lots of drugs. Fights. Noise calls. We've had shootings here. What else have we had here? Pretty much everything."

Frissora, 23, has worked in the department for just two years, but she grew up in Rochester. To a certain extent, she said, the growth of the last decade has affected her own impression of violent and non-violent crimes in the city.

"Would I leave my car running at a gas station anywhere in this town? Absolutely not," Frissora said. "Wouldn't leave my car doors unlocked. Wouldn't leave my house unlocked ... I think crime has gone up. And maybe not necessarily numbers, but severity. Homicides and shootings? OK, maybe we don't get a ton a year, but any is too many."

BRINGING A COMMUNITY TOGETHER

Regardless of the numbers, the perception that crime is up has brought residents and community organizations together in an unprecedented way.

In 2009, after the high-profile shootings, community leaders formed a citywide organization to coordinate the groups that deal with crime and gangs in town.

While the overall number of crimes has held steady, the city's increasing population and racial diversity have changed how people perceive crime. And for some Rochester residents, the numbers aren't nearly as important as how they feel.

As he stared out his car window while on a drive through his neighborhood, Todd Hager speculated that the city's increased diversity has sparked worries of increased crime.

He's candid about his frustration with what he hears from some of his neighbors.

A typical comment: "Oh, you know those Sudanese kids, those really dark skinned kids over there? They're not speaking English; they must be up to something. They're planning something."

"You don't hear, 'Hey, I think they're speaking Norwegian over there, you better go check it out.'" Hager said. "Why is that? We still have those same old fears of the unknown, and it can't be me, because I know my people. It must be those other people -- them."

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