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'I think our work speaks for itself,' CERT leader says of downtown summer nights

Rochester police Capt. Jeff Stilwell said police responded to only one assault between July and September during the nights that the Community Engagement Response Team was out in the downtown.

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A prayer is said at the start of a Community Engagement Response Team (C.E.R.T) meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

As the summer drew to a close, the familiar sight of red shirts went the way of the season.

A few weeks after their last night out in downtown Rochester, group founders Andre Crockett and Bud Whitehorn, as well as Rochester police Capt. Jeff Stilwell, reflected on the progress the Community Engagement Response Team had in making downtown a safer, more inclusive space for all members of the community.

“I think the numbers speak for (themselves),” Whitehorn said.

ALSO READ: Community Engagement Response Team aims to make Rochester safe for all

“We can confidently say Friday and Saturday nights this summer were safe downtown because of CERT,” Whitehorn said. “We felt like we did our job and shifted the culture. Toward the end of the summer, we started seeing the community actually wanting to break up fights. We started to see that they started going home at the end of the nights. We earned respect from the regulars and we started seeing more interactions with patrol officers and communities.”

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The group started walking downtown sidewalks on Friday and Saturday nights following the shooting death of 28-year-old Todd Lorne Banks Jr. on June 6. While CERT had plans to do the engagement work, the shooting sped up the timeline of its rollout.

No assaults reported in July and August

Stilwell said police didn’t know what to expect going into the summer months. With limited nightlife options in downtown, Stilwell said tensions were up in May and June and that crowds were not leaving even when they couldn't get in the bars and nightclubs.

“We had pretty much reduced assaults through the summer when they were out there,” Stilwell said of CERT’s effectiveness. "We definitely met the goal that we had to reduce tension down there. Anecdotally, talking to the officers that spent their regular time down there, just the overall interaction was a lot better. People were generally getting along, they weren’t angry with the police. They saw the police as a part of the ecosystem down there.”

From June 1 to June 30, Rochester police responded to 227 calls in the downtown business district. Of those calls, 56 bar incidents, two assaults and five disorderly conduct incidents were reported during the timeframe CERT was doing street outreach. CERT’s first official night out was June 11.

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Bud Whitehorn with the Community Engagement Response Team speaks Sgt. Rick Dahly, and officer Steve Osborne, with the Rochester Police Department about their new initiative on Friday, June 11, 2021, in downtown Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

In July, police responded to 252 incidents, of which 61 bar incidents and six disorderly conduct incidents took place during CERT’s hours.

In August, there were a total of 223 calls, including 30 bar incidents and four disorderly conduct incidents during the Friday and Saturday nights CERT was out engaging with the community.

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There were no assaults reported in July or August when CERT was downtown.

In September, when extra police patrols ended, there were 195 calls including 19 late-night bar incidents, one assault and one disorderly conduct incident during CERT’s active hours. Stilwell said the assault involved a very intoxicated person hugging a female officer and refusing to let go, which resulted in a “low-level scuffle to separate” the person from the officer.

'For the empowerment and for the betterment of this community'

CERT’s rollout wasn’t without hiccups and not everyone has agreed that the group is doing good work, but Whitehorn and Crockett aren’t deterred.

“I think our work speaks for itself. When change happens, it doesn’t always feel good to some people,” Whitehorn said. “Some people won’t see it until the results come. So some of the things we are doing on the front-end are something that can be very powerful for this community.

“So we understand that everybody won’t get it at first, but everything we're doing is for the empowerment and for the betterment of this community.”

Stilwell, too, acknowledged the rollout of the initiative was not without issues, but cited the urgent need to prevent violence like the shooting of Banks.

CERT is not a branch of the police department. Stilwell said the department didn’t have a say in who was allowed to volunteer with CERT. But CERT worked in collaboration with a small group of officers to drive the decision-making about what should be done to de-escalate tensions downtown, including the blocking off of Third Street Southwest from South Broadway Avenue to First Avenue Southwest during the late-night hours.

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Charles Jackson hugs Johnie Redmond while patrolling the downtown area with the Community Engagement Response Team on Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Stilwell said that was done to limit the ability of people to circle the block, looking for trouble.

“My overall perspective on CERT is -- there was a specific problem in the downtown -- this becomes how do we get people to feel like they have a vested interest in working through problems without resorting to violence, destruction, those types of things,” Stilwell said.

Crockett and Whitehorn pointed to the destruction seen in the Twin Cities in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020 and Duante Wright's death in April. Without people feeling like they are part of the community, there is little incentive to say no to outside agitation calling for destruction, Whitehorn said.

"But if you get people feeling that like is our town -- and this is what CERT is about -- empowering our people and activating their engagement," Whitehorn said.

Basketball, food and haircuts

From the early weeks when CERT had five volunteers to the summer's end when it had more than two dozen, how those volunteers operated also changed. A foot race between a volunteer and a bar patron by the end of the summer turned into free haircuts, basketball and food at the end of the night.

The programming drew criticism from some and also forced the group to combat misinformation that CERT was actively drawing people downtown.

Stilwell, Crockett and Whitehorn said that wasn’t the case. Prior to having those things, Stilwell said, people who had been turned away from bars because of capacity limits were congregating in the area and tensions would rise.

CERT volunteers, with the help of Open Table and Jersey Joe’s, also would provide free food at the end of the night. With limited or no food options open in the city in those early-morning hours, it provided not only a food option, but a chance to slow down an intoxicated person.

Free haircuts also gave volunteer barbers a chance to engage with a person for an extended period of time.

The group also placed a basketball hoop in an alley to encourage people to interact with one another. The hoop also had an unexpected success.

Whitehorn said one of the regular hoop users told CERT volunteers that he discovered the hoop while on a bar rooftop patio. The man, who said he was a recovering alcoholic, had gone downtown that night with the intention of drinking after two years of sobriety. The sound of a bouncing basketball caught his attention and, he told Whitehorn, probably saved his life.

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The Community Engagement Response Team (C.E.R.T) has grown since it was formed less than 6 months ago on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

What the future holds for further summertime street outreach is still to be determined.

While CERT’s volunteers won’t be a staple of the Friday and Saturday night scene downtown during the fall and winter months, the group has plans to be in the community and host events.

Whitehorn stressed that CERT isn’t a downtown group and its focus on the bar scene was only its first initiative -- one borne out of a need to help keep the community safe.

The group hosted a back-to-school event at a number of local apartment complexes and helped handout school supplies to families. CERT volunteers also have plans to host events for the upcoming holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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