Andre Crockett can recall the moment the idea hit him: Of a community liaison serving as a go-between between the Rochester African American community and the Rochester Police Department.

Crockett, owner of Barbershop and Social Services in Rochester, was in Minneapolis last June to participate in the George Floyd Memorial March. And he happened to notice, amid the damaged and boarded-up storefronts and restaurants, one storefront that conspicuously stood out from the rest. It wasn't boarded-up or damaged.

Crockett found out why. The owner of the unscathed store had hired a member in the African American community with the street credibility and respect to protect the store. They weren't to touch it.

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And Crockett got to thinking: What if someone could play a similar function in Rochester but on a broader scale?

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It would have to be someone who had the credibility in Rochester's Black community to serve as an interlocuter between it and the Rochester Police Department. Who might be able to reduce the festering tensions and mistrust between the two?

And one name came to Crockett's mind: William "Bud" Whitehorn.

'Both sides'

Whitehorn, 45, has lived on both sides of the fence, so to speak. He has been a gang member, a drug dealer and an ex-convict; today he is an ordained deacon, an outreach activist, a businessman and a leader and facilitator of a support group for people addicted to the streets like he once was, "Hustlers Anonymous."

"He can relate to both sides, as a person who has been incarcerated and for those who have been incarcerated and entangled in the system," said Crockett, who is also co-creator of Rochester in Color.

He is also someone who won't be afraid to speak his mind to Rochester police, Crockett said.

The community liaison, the first of its kind in the RPD's history, was designed to be independent from the police department.

While RPD is chipping in for programming, funding and support for the position comes from myriad sources: Rochester Area Foundation, Mayo Clinic, Midwest Bank, and the Rochester Post Bulletin, Crockett said. Whitehorn works for Barbershop & Social Services.

Whitehorn didn't get into details about his immediate plans for the position, which started in early February, but said the goal is to strengthen the relationship between the Black community and the RPD.

He characterized that relationship as one of mistrust and suspicion among many in the Black community toward the RPD. While there are good police officers, he said, many perceive police as working for a system that "has been the enemy of our people for years."

"There is no trust," Whitehorn said. "It's a lot of trauma, a lot of built-up frustration and lot of distrust."

Establishing trust

Rochester Police Captain Jeff Stilwell said the position is the product of a growing awareness of the need for a liaison with the ability to reach parts of the Black community inaccessible to police.

While the police department, by and large, enjoys the trust of the broader community, there are parts that are resistant to its outreach programs, where its efforts at establishing trust and legitimacy were having no effect.

"We have our traditional things. We reached out to youth groups that have been great partners," Stilwell said. "It gets down to this segment of the community that just feels like they're disenfranchised. No matter how much we say, 'come and talk to us,' they won't."

Initial media reports about the position created confusion about its funding, potentially undercutting its effectiveness. People got the impression that it was city-funded. It wasn't There was no way such a program could work if the liaison were seen as a department representative, Stilwell said.

"The goal of this program was not for us to go into their community and tell them what they needed," he said. "It was for them to tell us what they needed. And what they told us is that Bud Whitehorn is the person."

Up from the streets

Whitehorn said he grew up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's south side. He became involved with gangs and sold crack cocaine at an early age. Whitehorn himself never became addicted to the drugs he sold, but he became addicted to the lifestyle.

"People don't understand that hustling can be an addiction," Whitehorn said. "If I wanted to quit a job or something didn't go the way I wanted to go, I'd always come back to the streets, because that was my comfort zone."

He moved to Rochester in 1995 as a young father of five children trying provide a better life for his family. Though removed from the neighborhood where he sold drugs, the same "street" mentality reigned within the then-20-year-old. He found Rochester and Minnesota, moreover, offered lucrative markets for selling drugs.

He was eventually arrested, convicted of controlled substance crimes and sent to prison.

Whitehorn said the impulse and desire to change was taking root before he went prison. While incarcerated, he gave his life to Christ. Whitehorn had always thought of drug-dealing as a victimless crime, but in prison, he realized it wasn't.

He was 35 when he was released. He was faced with a daunting task: How to "rebuild myself, rebuild my thinking, my friends, everything around me had to be re-evaluated and rebuilt."

'Up for the challenge'

Later, when Whitehorn was working for Recovery is Happening, a drug treatment program, he spoke to some students at Kasson-Mantorville Middle School about the danger of drugs. At one point, a student asked him if he was afraid about going to prison.

Whitehorn told him prison never scared him. That was part of the game. That was the life he had signed up for and accepted, and the possibility of death or prison was part of the calculus. What really scared him was getting out of prison and completely remaking his life from scratch.

"You can make up to $2,000 to $3,000 in a phone call (as a drug dealer)," he said. "You have to wait a whole month to make that type of money (legitimately). So the economic difference was like a financial shock. My biggest fear is that I will get frustrated and turn back to what I knew best."

He didn't do that. Instead, over time, he dedicated himself to being the kind of person he needed when he got out of prison. He made himself into a resource and help for those who sought to escape from life on the street.

Bud Whitehorn owner of Whitehorn Reliable Shuttle Service poses for a portrait with his son and additional driver, Demonie on Friday, October 2, 2020, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Bud Whitehorn owner of Whitehorn Reliable Shuttle Service poses for a portrait with his son and additional driver, Demonie on Friday, October 2, 2020, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

A key person in Whitehorn's transformation was the Pastor Lorone Shepard of Christway Full Gospel Church in Rochester. "Without her, I wouldn't have changed," he said. Whitehorn also started working as a facilitator at Hustlers Anonymous, a support group that helps people make the transition from prison.

He also started Whitehorn Reliable Shuttle Services, a family-owned business. While working for Recovery is Happening, he would help clients find jobs. But some of them were quitting or getting fired because of a lack of transportation. The shuttle service now offers low-cost service to people in four counties in Southeastern Minnesota. His goal is to expand to all 11 counties in Southeastern Minnesota.

Now with this new job, Whitehorn feels he has even broader scope to help his community.

"I'm excited about the possibility of change, the possibility of becoming part of helping my people," Whitehorn said.

"I'm up for the challenge."