When is a foot race more than a foot race?
When it involves the newly formed Community Engagement Response Team. Clad in red shirts, the group of about a half-dozen people are part of a movement led by Pastor Andre Crockett, of Barbershop & Social Services, and William “Bud” Whitehorn, the newly appointed community liaison.
“We're not trying to be vigilantes against crime. We're not trying to be police officers, or civil service officers," Whitehorn said. "We want to use our influence and peace and love and respect that the individuals have for us here in the community to help create a positive environment."
On Friday, June 11, the group met about 11 p.m. on the corner of First Avenue Southeast and Third Street Southwest, where candles, photos, flowers and other mementos had been placed in memory of Todd Lorne Banks Jr., who was killed early this month.
It was the first night the CERT team was out in such a large group, but members had been out the weekend before.
The plan to have a team of people walking downtown Rochester had been in the works well before the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Banks on Sunday, June 6, but his death made Whitehorn and others with CERT realize they needed to “turn up the intensity” of their work.
Rochester Police Capt. Jeff Stilwell echoed that sentiment, saying the department has “been banging around this concept of having a group of community members that help us engage the community and deal with problems collaboratively.”
“We’ve always sort of known when we started the community liaison position this was the long-range goal — to build out some capacity in the community to deal with problems that might not be traditional police problems, that might be some low-level mediation and dispute mediation and that is kind of where we have come to,” he said.
Whitehorn said the idea of a group like CERT was part of the conversation when he stepped into his role as a community liaison. He said that to accomplish the goal of building a better relationship between the Black community and police officers, there is work to do within the Black community.
More than an hour into their night of walking the downtown area in the early hours of Saturday, June 12, CERT member Charles Jackson showed that a foot race can be more than just running. Taking on a young man twice his junior, Jackson held his own as the pair sprinted down Third Street Southwest before tripping, rolling twice, then popping back to his feet to cheers and applause.
Two days after the fatal shooting, the Rochester Police Department announced that it, too, would be providing additional patrols across the city and downtown over the summer months.
“We had seen sort of an escalation, as the weather got nice as we got into June, of some behavior down there, so we've had them out working hand-in-hand with officers in the downtown area the last two weekends, and we plan to continue that,” Stilwell said.
The added patrols are not unique to this summer. It's a typical practice of the police department during the summer months, when calls for service and incident rates tend to increase. CERT's response, though, is new.
“I think that there is a lot of stuff getting out of hand in other communities right now, like in Minneapolis and stuff, stuff you can't really grab a hold to, but we have an opportunity now — right here, right now — to make some changes within our community,” said CERT member Shaketa Clark. “And that is why CERT is very important to me, because we can make some changes."
CERT members are currently unpaid, but Whitehorn, through the Barbershop nonprofit, hopes to be able to provide members a stipend. The group is looking for members as well as financial support to help purchase supplies like water bottles to hand out, and all-weather apparel, as CERT plans to be out rain or shine.
“It takes all of us to keep our community safe,” Crockett said. “We can’t do this thing alone. We need all boots on the ground.”
After gathering in a moment of prayer Friday night, the group began to head down Third Street — not making it far before stopping to chat with someone. All who approached the red-shirted group came with smiles and curiosity. Some stopped for brief interactions while other engaged in deep conversations, divulging their own struggles or hopes for the community.
CERT members and police officers alike have said they are seeing early success with the program.
“We’re pretty excited that the early results are fairly positive on this idea and this program,” Stilwell said. “I know for the last two weekends they've been out there, the shooting in the downtown happened after they were gone and the bars were closed, but we hadn't been able to make it through Friday or Saturday night without police calls for fights and disorderly conduct and those types of issues. We made it through two weekends now with no kind of any of that behavior.”
Clark said in addition to speaking with people, the group also helped to step in and stop physical fights before they had a chance to start.
The group won’t just be confined to the downtown area on weekend nights. They have plans to attend Safe City Nights, host their own events, and will be working on building relationships with downtown businesses and restaurants. The group also helps do mediation, restorative circles and courageous conversations.
“We do much more than just patrolling the streets. We believe in intervention before things happen,” Crockett said. “Our ultimate goal is to make those hot pockets within our community a safe place for all."
Want to get involved?
Those who would like to help, whether through volunteering or donating money, can do so through Barbershop & Social Services by reaching out via email at email@example.com or through social media at www.facebook.com/barbershoptalksouthmn, or by calling 507-269-0525.