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Rapid City’s homicide surge in 2015 is exposing a deadly component of the city’s racial divide.

According to statistics released by police last week, 13 of the 14 homicide victims during the past three years in the city were Native American.

Furthermore, in an interview last week, Police Chief Karl Jegeris said that in all of the cases with identified suspects, those responsible for the deaths are also Native American (in the most recent two homicides this month, the race of the suspects is not yet known because no arrests have been made).

The numbers reflect the everyday fears of people in the mostly low-income and Native American-dominated neighborhood surrounding the corner of North Street and North First Street, in the center of an area generally known as North Rapid. That intersection is where a Native American man became the city’s latest homicide victim when he was beaten with a baseball bat Wednesday night and left to die on a mainly residential street corner.

On Friday morning, two young men walked along a drainage ditch near the crime scene. They gave their names only as “Indio” and “Stoner” and said they don’t feel safe in their neighborhood without a gun.

“That’s how it goes around here,” said Indio, who is part Native American. “Otherwise you’ll be caught slippin’ on the streets and get jumped for money.”

Eric Wild, another young Native American man who was walking near the crime scene Friday, said violence has escalated lately in a neighborhood that has a long history of poverty and violence.

“I’ve grown up here my whole life and it’s never been like it is right now,” Wild said. “It’s getting crazy.”

Drugs, violence on rise

Their anecdotal observations are supported by crime statistics.

The six homicides through nearly nine months of this year in Rapid City are already the most since 2012, when there were six during the entire calendar year. According to the FBI, there were 23 murders in 2012 in all of South Dakota, indicating that Rapid City was home to more than a quarter of killings that year while only making up less than 10 percent of the state population. The FBI reported 20 murders in South Dakota in 2013.

Four of this year’s homicides were in North Rapid, all of them within a mile of each other in an area that can be roughly described as south of Anamosa Street, west of Lacrosse Street, north of Rapid Creek and east of Haines Avenue. The other two homicides were in central and southern Rapid City. One of those killed in North Rapid was an infant.

Another homicide this year was about four miles outside of city limits. Both the suspect and victim were white in that case, which Pennington County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Patty Garland said is the only homicide case handled by the office so far this year.

Jegeris said the city's homicide surge may be an outgrowth of an upswing in drug-fueled violence. Aggravated assaults from 2010 to 2014 in the city numbered 221 in 2010; 242 in 2011; 222 in 2012; 300 in 2013; and 296 last year. Drug arrests showed a steady rise during that period, numbering 569, 669, 734, 1,099 and jumping to 1,309 last year.

A young mother who lives in east-central Rapid City and was visiting Lakota Community Homes on Friday on the city's far north side, blamed drug use for the increase in violence. The woman, who did not want to be named, described herself as a recovering methamphetamine addict and said her young son recently found a bag of meth bag lying on the ground in her neighborhood.

“It’s an epidemic with meth,” she said. “People are going crazy.”

Economics may also be contributing to the violence, Jegeris said. North Rapid, for example, is one of the city’s most impoverished areas.

“Generally speaking, there is a clear correlation regarding poverty and an increased need for police services that is related to increased levels of violence,” Jegeris said, “and that certainly is applicable for our community.”

Native leaders sought

Jegeris said he is concerned about the prevalence in crime statistics of Native Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the city’s population but account for a majority of arrests. Besides their involvement as either victim or suspect in most of the city’s recent homicides, they also constituted 59 percent of the people arrested last year in Rapid City and 33 percent of the crime victims.

Jegeris finds the homicide numbers especially troubling.

“It’s clear to me that we need to include leaders from the Native American community in forming a community response to address the root causes of violence,” he said.

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He took a step toward that goal in July with the creation of the police department’s first cultural advisory coordinator and the appointment of 29-year-old Native American Vaughn Vargas to the job. At the same time, Jegeris announced the creation of a Cultural Advisory Committee to be headed by Vargas. Last week, Jegeris said he hopes to have the committee positions filled by the end of the year.

Mayor Steve Allender, formerly the city police chief, said he is also troubled by the prevalence of Native Americans in crime and is considering calling a summit with Native American leaders.

“There needs to be a response from leaders in the Native community to help understand what is going on here,” Allender said.

Connect youth to culture

Beyond the new cultural advisory coordinator, Allender said additional police responses to violence in recent years have included the implementation of a serious repeat offender tracking program and the hiring of additional patrol officers to focus on violent crimes.

At the street level, "Indio" views the heightened police presence as part of the problem. He said police see only his part-Hispanic, part-Native American racial makeup and his many tattoos and immediately view him as a “suspect.” He does have a criminal record and said he got in trouble again recently when he was found with a gun after being released from jail. He said he needed the gun for protection.

“The police are harassing all the younger people here and causing violent people to get mad,” he said.

James Mueller, a 58-year-old Native American, spoke to the Journal while bleaching a decorative bison skull on his front stoop in Lakota Community Homes. He echoed others' statements about meth as the source of many problems and suggested more cultural education to help steer young Native American people away from drugs and violence.

“We need to get the youth connected with their elders and their spirituality,” Mueller said.

Back at the site of Wednesday's homicide, Eric Wild said the high number of murders involving Native Americans as victims and suspects reflects the sad reality of violence he sees routinely in his community.

“That’s kind of the majority of stuff that goes on down here,” he said. “Native on Native.”

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.