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Safety concerns arise about downtown Rapid City

Safety concerns arise about downtown Rapid City

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After years of redevelopment and rebirth, downtown Rapid City and the Mount Rushmore Road tourism corridor are — physically at least — in the best shape ever to serve as a sparkling home base not only for the city's 70,000 residents but also for the extensive tourism industry that forms the economic backbone of the region.

And yet, major questions remain about whether downtown and the rebuilt road to Mount Rushmore are as safe as they could be. Concerns over safety crystallized last week in two high-profile moments.

First, a handful of downtown business owners stormed the Tuesday night meeting of the Rapid City Council and in pointed testimony laid out their fears that their livelihoods and the safety of their customers and staff are being threatened by an influx of homeless people, aggressive panhandlers and intoxicated individuals downtown.

Then, just a few hours later on Wednesday morning, a store clerk was brutally stabbed to death while trying to prevent the theft of beer from the Loaf 'N Jug convenience store on Mount Rushmore Road. Two males, ages 19 and 17, have been charged with murder in the attack.

In the wake of those events — which it could be argued are not directly related but which are frightening nevertheless — the Rapid City Journal dispatched three reporters for three days to fan out around the city, focusing mainly on the downtown district, to talk to as many stakeholders as possible to pose two big questions: Is downtown safe; and what can be done to make it safer?

They found that the severity of the problem, if there is a problem at all, depends on whom you talk to. During daytime or early evening hours, most people said they feel safe and protected. Meanwhile, some business owners who are open later at night or are in the area regularly have more serious concerns, many of which are shared by city council members.

In additional interviews, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris is urging people not to overreact, adding that his department needs more resources while pointing out that officers must also balance the rights of individuals to be where they want.

Mayor Steve Allender, in very stark terms, blamed much of the safety issues downtown on Native Americans in Rapid City. "These are not crazy white people downtown, these are not Mexicans, these are not all women, they're not all men, the only pattern is that they are all Native American," said Allender, challenging Native leaders to help find solutions.

There is much at stake. Not only does this discussion arise just prior to the Black Hills Stock Show, which will bring an estimated 300,000 people to Rapid City over its 10-day run, but it also comes after the state just reported that the tourism industry, much of it rooted in Rapid City and the Black Hills, drew 14 million visitors and generated $280 million in tax revenue last year. And no one ever wants a repeat of the deadly confrontation that took place at the Loaf 'N Jug on Wednesday morning.

Today, we are publishing the first part of what the reporters uncovered by talking to business owners, city council members and people who frequent the downtown areas.

On Monday, we will publish material from the interviews with Mayor Allender and Chief Jegeris, who are on the front lines of the matter.

It is hoped these reports will broaden the community's understanding of what goes on downtown, and how we can move forward in a positive direction to protect the progress that has been made in Rapid City.

• • •

Heather Barry, 33, of Summerset, works at Revival, a boutique at 607 Main St. Barry said she and some other employees have had some harrowing experiences downtown. The scariest stuff usually happens at night when they are leaving the store and getting into their cars, but some incidents have taken place in broad daylight.

Barry said recently a man she believed was intoxicated came in and started openly filling his pockets with jewelry. She said she got the man to leave the store and called the police, but it took police an hour to respond. She said she had to continue to watch the man as he walked down the street and went into other stores so she could relay the information to the dispatcher.

“I’m from L.A., and I feel safer there than I do here,” Barry said.

Barry said she has had customers come back into the store in tears after being harassed by panhandlers and has had to call law enforcement so often she and the dispatchers know each other on a first-name basis.

The employees have to park either behind Firehouse Brewing Co. or in the parking garage next to Main Street Square, and it is then that they feel the most vulnerable, she said. Barry has had other employees tell her that behind the Firehouse they have stopped a car theft in progress and one girl had a guy attempt to open her car door after she got in.

“Thank goodness it was locked,” Barry said. “It is so, so bad.”

• • •

Joey Henk, a bartender at the Brass Rail Lounge at 624 St. Joseph St. in downtown Rapid City, took a drag from his cigarette beneath the red and blue neon lights during a break from work on Wednesday night. When you work downtown, “it’s definitely different because you see it (panhandling) a lot,” Henk said. He’s become accustomed to being approached and asked for money and cigarettes.

“You kind of just have to deal with it in a peaceful way.” Even leaving the bar late at night after a closing shift, Henk said he never feels in danger, but offered one note of caution: “Watch yourself in the alleyways.”

• • •

Jason Broyles and his son, Mason, leaned idly against the outer wall of the Main Street Square ice rink on a mild Wednesday night as The Ronettes' “Be My Little Baby” played in the background. As a Zamboni circled and whirred to clear the ice for skaters, Broyles, a Rapid City resident, said he felt safe downtown because there are always other people around. He said he doesn't feel that way everywhere in Rapid City.

“I wouldn’t dare go to the north side at any time of the day,” Broyles said, adding that the bike path just north of downtown is an area he avoids. Broyles believes a lot of the ugly incidents downtown are alcohol-related.

It was around 7:30 p.m. A few feet away from Broyles, a group of eight kids from First Christian Church warmed their hands over the outdoor fireplace at Main Street Square, a place where panhandlers sometimes congregate. “We went ice skating and had a real good time,” said Ami Lynn, a shy 13-year-old with the group.

Brian Montieth was one of the adult chaperones. “If we thought we were in danger we wouldn’t be out here tonight,” he said.

Mary Stevens, another one of the adult chaperones, said she felt safe but has seen some of the problems business owners have reported downtown.

“I wouldn’t walk out here at night by myself, but with a group?” she said. “Our church is downtown, so we’re used to people knocking on the door or falling asleep in the stairwell. It’s a ministry opportunity.”

• • •

Barb Paur, owner of Mt. Rushmore Birds and Paws Pet Bakery and Gifts, said she feels much safer in her new location on North Haines Avenue in North Rapid than she did when her store was in the 900 block of Main Street for a few years prior to December.

Paur said she had problems with her Main Street landlord and was "basically evicted," and wasn't happy about moving and all the expenses. But she now calls it a blessing in disguise.

"When one door closes, another one opens," Paur said. "I haven’t had one homeless person coming in the door, I haven't had to peek out the door to make sure no one is laying on the Dumpster so I can take the trash out."

She said she used to lock her doors if the two businesses next to her were closed because of fear for her safety.

"I've had them walk right into my store and sometimes you can't get them to leave," she said. "I'm sorry I had to move, but I'm grateful. In the long run, it's much better. I'm not afraid to be in my store anymore."

Paur also serves on the Rapid City Kennel Club board that puts on the dog show every year in Rapid City. This year some visitors asked for recommendations for a place to eat so she sent them downtown to Botticelli Ristorante, where they were, she said, "accosted by panhandlers going in."

She said they had a great meal and decided to go for a walk to see the president statues, but were once again approached by panhandlers. She said with no police in sight, they decided it would be safer to go back.

"They said they felt too uncomfortable," Paur said. "We have some great restaurants, but I don’t feel like I can send my visitors of my dog show downtown."

• • •

Tim Powell, the owner of Red Wing Shoes at 922 Main St., said that although the nuisances and vandalism of his property have been relatively benign, it’s also been a constant.

“It’s an absolute aggravation and has been for years,” Powell said. “It is a scar on the community.”

Among the troubles Powell’s storefront has experienced are passersby stealing the American flag hanging outside the store’s entrance, people urinating on the building, and flowers being pulled from their urns outside the store.

“It’s a constant nuisance,” he said.

• • •

Chris Johnson, owner of The Clock Shop at 610 Seventh St., has been a key player in several downtown business and revitalization groups. He doesn't believe the issue is as dire as some may suggest.

“It never seems to be a problem where we’re at,” said Johnson. “From my perspective, I don’t see the problem as much as other people are seeing it.”

Johnson admitted that there have been some minor issues with people spray-painting his building, but those problems have largely disappeared.  

“I think Art Alley gave those people a canvas to work on,” Johnson said. "By and large, downtown Rapid City is about as free from those (panhandling, vagrancy, robbery, violence) problems as you could ever hope for in a city our size. Things could be much, much worse than we have.”

• • •

Dan Senftner, president and CEO of Destination Rapid City, an organization that has led many of the revitalization efforts in downtown Rapid City in the past decade, said he respects the concerns of some downtown business owners but cautioned against overreacting.  

“I think we’ve had a couple instances in the last couple days that have created the spur of that,” Senftner said. “It’s not every day, it’s not every week, and we have to make sure we don’t take it out of context. I’ve never worked in a community that hasn’t had these issues. It’s normal, it’s not abnormal.”

Senftner praised law enforcement and the Rapid City Police Department, deferring to their expertise in how to handle the matter, but tried to humanize the perpetrators.

“That’s a choice of way of life for a certain amount of people; it’s what they do,” Senftner said, referring to panhandlers and vagrants. “It’s important that we figure out a way to work with them. They’re people too, they have wants and needs also.”

His advice? “We increase the (police) presence,” Senftner said. “When you increase the presence, it changes the way people act.”

• • •

Lisa Modrick is the Ward 1 alderwoman who was elected in part due to her leadership of the business group that pushed for and helped guide the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Mount Rushmore Road. Her ward includes the store where Wednesday's murder took place.

She said the crime problem has become a "crisis."

"I think the current events in Rapid City like the one we experienced today, the unfortunate crime that was committed, as well as when the neighborhood and the business district comes to us, that shows that the crime has hit crisis level," Modrick said Wednesday. 

She was not sure exactly what steps need to be taken, but she was supportive of action. 

"Something has to change," Modrick said. "The jails are full and rehabilitation programs aren’t coming soon enough. And the Rapid City Collective Impact, that's in its infancy."

She supports the task force that was created by the city council on Tuesday to address safety concerns but says there needs to be more done immediately.

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"There needs to be something done as soon as we can," she said. "I believe the task force will work knowing this has become a priority for our community, and what happened this morning is going to accelerate this task force’s need to come up with a plan, and its important we have a plan. We need to have a plan and then we need to work that plan in order to manage it."

Modrick said she is seeing more crime downtown and has heard increasing reports of frightening incidents downtown.

"It's truly being seen more and more by everybody, by business owners, those that experience downtown regularly, and even our tourists," Modrick said. "I have read reviews recently that have posts that say they left Rapid City not feeling safe. And you don’t want that, we are a tourism community. We need to give them a place they can come to enjoy our beautiful town that we’re building."

Modrick also believes that the crime is related to drugs and alcohol.

"We need to find a way to rid it of our city," she said. "And it's not just in Rapid City, it’s happening across the nation. The meth is taking our cities away, and my feeling is, it’s time to take back our city."

• • •

As a train rolled unhurriedly over the tracks behind the Cornerstone Rescue Mission back lot on the eastern end of downtown last week, a group of six men shared stories and cigarettes around a picnic table. 

Richard Dibble has lived at the mission on and off for six years. The place is always crowded, especially in the winter. Without enough beds to accommodate everyone, the shelter keeps many of its residents on sleeping mats in the hallways.

“I don’t like being here,” the 50-year old Dibble said. “It helps because it’s a shelter, but I want to leave as soon as possible.”

Dibble takes a lot of seasonal work, sometimes at national parks like the Badlands and Grand Canyon. He’s waiting for the snow to melt to start working again as a highway flagman.

The bespectacled Dibble doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of what a homeless person is supposed to look like, but he has a good idea of what people— especially police — see when they look at him.

“I’m a hobo, a piece of crap,” he said. “Once you carry the backpack, the sleeping bag, they’re going to think you’re an outsider.”

Whenever Dibble has asked strangers for money, he said it was because he needed it for food or shelter, never for drugs or alcohol.

“There are times when you become desperate, you have nowhere else to go, and you’ve got to do it to survive,” Dibble said. “There are people like me who really, really need it.”

Dibble and the others made it clear they don’t see panhandling as something only homeless people do, or even something that every homeless person does. 

“As a homeless person, I’ve never panhandled,” said a man named Shawn, who didn't give his last name. “I’m too nervous to hit anybody up for spare change.”

Shawn said the people he sees panhandling are mostly suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction.

“When you’re intoxicated you can’t go to day labor, you can’t hold a job, so the easiest thing is to panhandle downtown,” he said.

Kasey, 33, of Pine Ridge, who didn't give his last name, has been homeless for only two months, but that’s long enough for him to witness the ugliness that results from the mixture of substance abuse, desperation and panhandling.

“When I walk through downtown or I walk to a store, I always see vagrants out there and they’re already intoxicated but they’re trying to get more out of panhandling,” Kasey said. “Their excuse is that they’re hungover and they’re trying to get a beer for their hangover and they ask me for change. I say ‘no’ and they say, ‘Oh, all right, you’re one of them kind of Indians, too good for your own kind, huh?'”

When Jensen, a 53-year-old native of Pine Ridge who’s been homeless for two years and also didn't give his full name, recalled a similar memory, he shook his head.

“We walked by a guy downtown, and this guy was just persistent,” said Jensen. “He was even trying to fight the man he was asking. I kind of hate to see that kind of stuff. It makes the rest of us look bad.”

Jensen, whose son committed suicide in 2005 from what he diagnosed as a sense of hopelessness and fear, isn’t sure how to make the cycle stop.

“My best solution is just to get security out there,” Jensen said. Adding more police officers would be a cause of concern for him and the other homeless men, “but we don’t want to get out there and get beaten down and get killed” by intoxicated or drug-addled people, he said.

• • •

Andrew Beck works as a valet at the Hotel Alex Johnson at 523 Sixth St., sometimes during the night shift from 4 p.m. to midnight. Homeless people often gather near the sliding glass entrance of the hotel where the valets are stationed and will sometimes wander in off the streets to use the public restrooms or get a drink of water.

It can become a problem if they start harassing customers or refuse to leave when asked, Beck said. The valets keep a can of pepper spray in a cabinet to use on anyone who gets too rowdy, but as far Beck knows, it hasn’t been used. Beck described his interactions with the homeless people outside the hotel as more uncomfortable or awkward than unsafe.

“I’ve been threatened, but it’s all talk. None of it is a big deal,” Beck said. “I feel safe. The only time I don’t is when they’re super drunk.”

People usually respond well in Beck’s experience — if they are treated respectfully.

• • •

Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Wright was ready to give the police whatever they needed after he made a motion at the city council meeting on Tuesday to make an emergency allocation of $200,000 to the Rapid City Police Department to help provide resources to combat the crime downtown. 

After the murder of the convenience store clerk Wednesday, Wright was even more upset. 

"I think it's absolutely tragic what happened this morning," Wright said Wednesday. "It just shows something is going wrong in this community."

He added that he firmly believes it is related to methamphetamine, other drugs and alcohol abuse.

He said something needs to be done now and though he doesn't have the answers, he wants to provide whatever he can to help. 

"Something needs to be done ASAP to get this fixed, and it's not going to be cheap and it's not going to be easy, but we need to move on it fast."

"The council needs to support the solution. We need some things to do now and some long-term solutions."

• • •

If things get out of hand at certain locations where his firm has been hired to provide security, Ken Orrock at Black Hills Patrol will get a phone call.

“Our police department does a good job,” Orrock said. “They just can’t be everywhere at once.”

Owned and operated by Orrock, Black Hills Patrol is a private security firm that provides services for at least a half-dozen downtown businesses, including the Hotel Alex Johnson, and many of the Shops at Main Street Square. The company also has security contracts with various city departments, including the Rapid City Public Library, the parks and recreation department, and the wastewater plant.

Orrock’s officers, some of whom are equipped with firearms, routinely conduct patrols of the city near the businesses they work for, as well as in Main Street Square and Memorial Park.

Based on those patrols, Orrock said he has noticed a definite uptick in activity as of late.

“We’re seeing a lot more homeless people camped out in public restrooms and private restrooms,” he said. “Lots of public intoxication and consuming alcohol in public. Aggressive panhandling is one of the biggest problems we have downtown.”

Orrock was on patrol the other night and found three homeless people camped out in a public restroom. It’s his job to get them out, but he said he tries to find somewhere to send them rather than kick them back out into the cold.

“Otherwise you’re just pushing the problem down the street and it will just pop back up somewhere else,” he said.

Part of the problem, Orrock believes, is there is a lack of places in Rapid City to send homeless people. The City-County Detoxification Center has a small number of beds and the Cornerstone Rescue Mission — the main homeless shelter in the city — won’t take in people who are intoxicated.

“It’s a community responsibility,” Orrock said. “Whether that’s expanding services at the mission and detox, or coming up with other service providers to assist with that.”

• • •

Ward 3 Alderman Jason Salamun said the murder Wednesday was heartbreaking, and he sees it all as related to substance abuse. 

"Quite frankly, I think our hearts are breaking for our community," he said. "It's just heartbreaking."

"At all levels of government, public safety is priority one," he said. "I believe we have an outstanding police department and they’ve been sending a message loud and clear that violent crime is on the rise. Mainly due to substance abuse."

Though he was the one to propose the task force creation that the council eventually passed Tuesday, Salamun said he knows there will ultimately need to be several approaches taken.

"I know deep-rooted issues exist," he said. "But we need to do something today. We need to be strong and wise in our approach. We need to look at practical, short-term solutions to go hand-in-hand with our long-term solutions."

He went on to say that the murder Wednesday was so shocking and emotional that it gave him an idea of what kinds of things police officers go through. 

"The police feel this every day, people in the community don’t always experience this," he said.

This caused him to reflect on Chief Jegeris' approach at the city council meeting on Tuesday. "There is some wisdom in hearing him say take a breath and slow down."

But at the same time, he said, there is urgency. He used an analogy of raising children to explain how he thinks the city should handle it. 

"When your child is young and throwing a fit in the middle of a store, you have to correct them right then," he said.

He added that while it may be embarrassing, it must be done. And at the same time, you are working on raising them in the long-term to grow up and become good people, he said. 

"I think both have to happen at the same time."

On Friday, Salamun said he came up with a plan he thinks could possibly work; he wants to have officers patrol the downtown sector permanently.  

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