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Fear Factor: Olmsted County crime statistics don’t tell the whole story

by Devin Bartolotta, Anchor/Producer

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — State statistics show that Rochester crime is the lowest it has been since the 1970s. But it seems as though every time there is a serious crime in Rochester – a shooting, stabbing, or a violent home invasion – the KTTC Facebook page explodes with comments from dozens of people saying they don’t feel safe in Rochester.

It has been a violent year. Just last week, an AK-47 drive-by shooting in Northwest Rochester left bullet holes in a home with three children inside.

Previously, a 22-year-old was shot dead on August 31st, half a dozen drive-by shootings have puzzled police, violent home invasions have resulted in hospitalizations, and several stabbings have nearly taken lives.

How could it be possible that crime is the lowest it’s been in 40 years, since the 1970s? Captain John Sherwin of Rochester Police Department says it’s possible because when you take the numbers at face value, it’s true.

In Olmsted County, by the numbers, there are fewer offenses now than 20 years ago. But what those numbers don’t show is how Rochester has changed.

“Crime fluctuates, not just locally but nationally. And I think the trend that we’ve seen in Rochester, is, Rochester’s grown up a little bit,” Captain Sherwin said.

It’s hard to measure violence, Sherwin says, but since 1995, crack-cocaine has taken a back seat to heroin and meth, and knives have largely been swapped out for firearms.

“I know from our experience we are seeing people carrying guns. We have had more shootings,” Sherwin said.

It’s a national trend, he said. And it comes with the fact that Rochester has grown in the past 20 years.

“In recent years, especially in the last decade, we’ve had more weapons taken off of people on the streets,” Captain Sherwin said. “We’ve seen more shootings that gather the attention of the media, and rightfully so.”

Gunfire draws more attention, but doesn’t necessarily worsen the statistics. An aggravated assault still counts as one offense to the BCA whether it’s with a knife or with a gun.

So when you analyze it, violent crime is still technically down since 1995.

“We’ve seen more crime that may grab the headlines. Crime that involves weapons, shootings that take place in neighborhoods, in more of a public situation,” said Captain Sherwin.

The type of crimes being committed in Olmsted County has changed, and so has the way we talk about what’s happening in our communities.

It seems the forum for speaking out these days is social media. All you have to do to get a feel for what people are thinking is look at the comments on the KTTC Facebook page.

Commenter Eric Davis said on October 22, “Mankato is a much better place to raise a family. I’m glad I ditched Rochester ten years ago.”

“What the heck is going on in this town?” said Justin Loehr on September 2.

“Rochester used to be a safe place to live,” commented Crissi Schulz on October 20. “Makes me sad.”

With hours of news on TV each day, plus websites, apps, and social media now updated constantly, correctional psychologist Dr. Steve Norton says we are more conscious of crime than ever; not just in Rochester, but everywhere.

“That social media does kind of explode the whole incident. You can read about it in 10, 20, 30 different outlets about the same event, so you find yourself reading about the event over and over again,” Dr. Norton said.

The influx of information may make us think crime is more prevalent, even if there isn’t reason to.

“People also have this sense that crime is much more common than it probably actually is. And a lot of that is directly related to the social media and public media and things like that,” said Dr. Norton.

Andy Kilen understands the public’s fear. He runs Next Chapter Ministries in Rochester, a non-profit that helps convicted criminals get back on their feet.

“Whoever’s getting shot, doesn’t matter. It’s still traumatic. And when people see that, and that’s the limit of their knowledge, it’s going to be fearful,” he said.

In his 24 years working with criminals in Olmsted County, he has seen the same trends police have.

More aggression, more guns, and a small group of criminals who repeat again and again.

“The circle is the circle. In this town, I don’t have to go very far to find out about somebody,” he said. “I’m hearing things about crime today that I didn’t hear in 1991 when I started in the jail.”

For Kilen, the secret to changing criminal behavior has been personal relationships. He says if you feel fearful, get involved in the community.

“If I’m afraid of someone, I really believe that the best way I can keep him from doing something to me is get to know him. And in that relationship, he’s going to be a lot less likely to harm me,” Kilen said.

“That’s almost counter-instinctual though,” said NewsCenter’s Devin Bartolotta.

“Absolutely, absolutely, and that’s why we don’t do it.”

But for police, like Captain Sherwin, when it comes to solving crime, what police hear and see in the community is more important than what any statistics may say.

“I think we’re going to do our jobs no matter what the perception is, but obviously if there’s a heightened perception of crime being a problem, then it’s a problem for us as well,” he said.


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