Questions outnumber answers on violence spike in Cedar Rapids

Police increase patrols in problem areas

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One of the most violent weeks in the past several years in Cedar Rapids began about 40 minutes after midnight on April 16.

Raphael Blackwell, Jr., 22, was shot and killed outside a strip club on the southern fringe of the city. The next day, a man was shot in the face in the 2000 block of Fifth Avenue SE. Gunfire erupted again three days later, this time in broad daylight, and three people were wounded at an apartment near Kirkwood Community College.

In all, four shootings left seven people wounded in a span of 29 days.

The spree continued last week, when a man with a handgun opened fire in southeast Cedar Rapids. Two houses were hit with bullets, but no one was hurt.

Authorities have said the shootings are not related, and have since made arrests in three of the cases, including the arrest Wednesday of Dominique A. Fisher of Cedar Rapids in Blackwell’s death. Meanwhile, many residents wonder what’s behind the recent violence and if their community is starting to change.

“When you turn on the news, you are looking to see who’s gotten shot next,” said Monica Simpson, 28, of Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids police have been extremely guarded about each investigation, saying the defense could use inaccurate information at trial if it is released. Court documents filed after the arrests, however, indicate robbery as a potential motive in two of the cases, as well as connections to illegal drugs.

Capt. Steve O’Konek, who leads the investigative division, said the spike in violent crime concerns the department, but he expressed confidence that the cases will be solved. Investigating cases is a complex and often time-consuming process that must be done in a specific order to ensure a prosecutable case, he said.

“It’s like the branches of a tree,” O’Konek said. “Sometimes you’re on the main branch, and sometimes you trail off, get to the end of the branch and there’s nothing left. But we have to start at the bottom and check all of those branches on the way to the top. That’s where it can get complex.

“Each case is its own separate tree. Some are like telephone poles and some are willow trees.”

In response to the recent violence, O’Konek said some investigators who had been working property crimes have been reassigned to the shootings. More patrol officers have been deployed to some problem areas.

This week, police planned to speak with neighborhood associations and other community leaders for feedback. O’Konek said the department wants to know about the expectations neighborhoods have for police.

“We have a part to play in stopping this, certainly, but this is a community issue,” O’Konek said. “This is about what your community is willing to put up with.”

O’Konek said residents should not hesitate to report any suspicious vehicles or people in their neighborhoods. When crime does occur, he said witnesses should do their best to focus so they can describe suspects, vehicles and other important details, like license plates.

Shootings in other areas of Linn County and in Iowa City have not increased in the same manner, authorities there said. Nationally, Iowa ranks 13th in the number of firearms assaults, with 19 for every 100,000 people, according to the most recent statistics from the FBI.

O’Konek and Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said that, although the number the of gun permits has surged since a change in state law last year, there is no evidence that it is a factor in the recent violence.

“They’re not going to Scheels, Fin and Feather or Gander Mountain to buy (guns),” said Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, spokeswoman for the Police Department.

Simpson, who has lived in Cedar Rapids her entire life, said the violence highlights a change in the city that seemed to start shortly after the disastrous flood of 2008. She said city leaders appear more interested in commercial interests than re-establishing community elements.

“I remember when you would drive by a park and it’d be full of people having fun — black, white, green and orange,” Simpson said. “You don’t see that anymore.”

Others, like Dan Bergstrom, said it seems like people in today’s society are more likely to use guns to settle disputes than other methods.

“Back when I was a kid, you would use your fists,” said Bergstrom, 54, of Cedar Rapids. “It was up close and personal, and then it was over.”

Simpson, who knew Blackwell and is an acquaintance of another man who was shot in April, is one of the lead organizers for a Stop the Violence March that is planned for May 19. Music and food will accompany informational materials about the local Crime Stoppers program and suicide awareness. Residents also plan to march through the Wellington Heights neighborhood.

“I don’t want to leave town,” Simpson said. “I want to take my community back.”

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