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As CERT's profile grows in Rochester, so does its potential as a target

Counter-protesters accuse CERT of acting like a police force. CERT says its forte is conflict-mediation.

Peace Plaza Abortion Rights Rally
Members of the Community Engagement Response Team (CERT) stand at the front of Rochester for Roe rally attendees and block counter-protesters in Peace Plaza in Downtown Rochester on Saturday, July 9, 2022.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The Community Engagement Response Team, short for CERT, made its debut in downtown Rochester last summer, billing itself as a group of red-shirted volunteers who use one-on-one conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques to defuse problems before they spin out of control.

Working in partnership with the Rochester Police Department but independent of it, CERT uses its leverage and credibility in the minority community to talk through problems before a fist is raised or a hand reaches for a gun.

By most accounts, it has been a successful partnership. And as its profile has risen so have the range of requests for its unique brand of calming mediation services.

Bar owners and music event planners have come knocking, asking CERT to provide security at their venues. But “that’s not what we really do,” said Pastor Andre Crockett, a CERT founder.

Last Saturday, at the request of community members, CERT ventured for the first time into the political arena and got accused of taking sides.

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It sought to use its conflict resolution skills at an abortion rights rally held Saturday, July 9, 2022, at Peace Plaza in downtown Rochester. Abortion has become a red-hot political issue ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, ending a women’s half-century constitutional right to an abortion.

Crockett said some in the community were worried that an event likely to draw passionate advocates from both sides could tip into one of physical confrontation and possibly violence.

“It was various different people in the community who was concerned,” Crockett said.

In the end, no one was hurt or sent to jail, but CERT ended up getting pulled into the political scrum, accused on social media by counter-protesters as taking on the role of a police force by corralling and controlling people and keeping the two sides separated.

 Minnesota DFL State Convention
Andre Crockett leads a prayer during the Minnesota DFL State Convention on May 20, 2022, at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Crockett disputes the characterization. One time during the rally, CERT members intervened and assisted in moving combative counter-protesters from the stage area.

But, its goal was to keep the peace, he said. If two jawboning participants were getting heated, CERT volunteers would stand between them and prevent them from throwing punches.

“We aren’t there to do the police job. We want to make that very clear,” Crockett said. “Our objective when we first started is to meet the community needs. And at that particular moment, the community asked us if we could come down there.”

Crockett is also executive director of Barbershop & Social Services, which is a content partner with the Rochester Post Bulletin on its Rochester in Color inclusive news initiative.

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Crockett declines to identify who in the community asked CERT to be a presence at the rally, but it wasn’t the police. He said CERT was not paid. There was no contract. All the CERT members who were at the rally – there were about 10 with two in support – were volunteers.

Rochester Police Capt. Jeff Stilwell also disagrees with the idea that CERT was performing police work at the rally.

“CERT is a community-led operation,” Stilwell said. “It’s not police department operations. So while we partner with them on many things, we don’t partner with them on everything. I think there’s a misconception that they’re sort of a police- or city- or government-run operation. They’re not.”

Stilwell said police leadership decided that the rally could be “monitored efficiently” without having a uniformed presence there. After two years of dealing with political and racial protests, Rochester Police have concluded that “sometimes less is more when it comes to a visible police presence," he said.

Peace Plaza Abortion Rights Rally
Jim Salutz attempts to keep a counter-protester from reaching the stage after Bud Whitehorn's Community Engagement Response Team moved the counter-protesters away from the front of the stage for being combative during the Rochester for Roe rally at Peace Plaza in Downtown Rochester on Saturday, July 9, 2022.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin

“Bad outcomes occur when police get interjected into a lot of these things where there’s not a serious risk,” Stilwell said.

Stilwell said it’s to the police department’s advantage to work with CERT but not to attempt to control it. CERT’s effectiveness stems from its ability to reach and communicate with members of the minority community who are suspicious of police.

“The minute the government takes control of them, they lose that credibility,” he said.

There’s little doubt that CERT’s role is expanding in the community, sometimes in collaboration with the police and sometimes not. Stilwell said CERT has agreed to be a presence at the Olmsted County Fair set for July 25-31 to help tame the bad behavior that disrupted it last year.

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Law enforcement officials said the rampant disruptive behavior and disrespect shown by some groups of young people was the worst they had ever seen. CERT volunteers also intend to participate in Rochester’s National Night Out in August, Crockett said.

CERT is a multi-ethnic and mixed racial group made up of 30 to 35 members ranging in age from 22 to 77. They include pastors, deacons, social workers, professionals and former prisoners. It is a volunteer group, although there are some who are paid a stipend. All receive about 25 hours of training in conflict resolution and de-escalation.

Crockett said CERT’s mission is basically to respond to whatever the community’s needs are. That can make the list of possible interventions almost sweeping.

It can be something as simple as helping a person pay rent to organizing a movie night for kids. It can involve training lifeguards working with diverse populations.

And it can involve more deadly matters. Recently this year, CERT members helped resolve a dispute between two apartment tenant factions who fired two dozen bullets at each other.

Crockett said he regards CERT’s efforts at the rally a success, although he’s not sure it would do another political rally.

“One thing that people can’t say is that we’re not effective,” Crockett said. “At the end of the day, no one got locked up.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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