Shaken and frustrated: Cedar Valley Townhomes residents seek answers over big brawl

A Cedar Rapids community that has cultivated close ties with police now question the response

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Nearly a week since a violent brawl broke out at Cedar Valley Townhomes, residents at the J Street SW complex say they are shaken, scared and frustrated.

“I have lived here for two years and have never seen that kind of fight out here,” said Jennifer Vestal, a resident of the affordable housing complex. “I have grandkids that come over, and my granddaughter wants to go outside and play and I’m not letting her go out … because of these kids coming in and causing trouble.”

Video of the Fight

 

A melee of up to perhaps 50 people, according to cellphone video clips and witness accounts, erupted last Monday evening outside the complex. It involved mostly teens and young adults — many of whom residents say came onto the property to start trouble.

The next day, residents of the complex brought the brawl to broad attention in an emotional appeal to the Cedar Rapids City Council for help — and by raising questions about whether police properly responded to and dealt with the sprawling fight.

“People are scared,” said Veronica Johnson, a resident and former president of the complex’s tenant council. “We don’t know if these kids are going to come back. We don’t know who’s going to come on to our property and start trouble.”

Monday’s fight was the second in as many days that involved kids coming to the southwest quadrant complex and initiating fights, she said.

“This is a good community,” she said of the complex. “This is not a violent community. We don’t have a lot of problems out here. We support each other, and we work together. This is a community that has each other’s backs and protects each other. But when these large groups of kids come in and start attacking us, it’s just too much.”

ACCOUNTS DIFFER

Police said officers responded to the complex about 5:30 p.m. Monday after receiving numerous reports of a disturbance that involved multiple people fighting.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said the first officer arrived in about four minutes, and upon seeing a fight between two individuals he “immediately engaged to break this fight up.”

In the minutes that followed, Jerman said, several backup officers arrived and made four arrests.

Many of the complex residents dispute the police account, characterizing the officers’ response as slow and insufficient.

Additionally, residents contended police targeted the wrong people when making arrests.

 

“They said the police officer got here in four minutes … but when he got here, he didn’t get out of the car, he didn’t identify himself as a police officer, he didn’t turn his sirens on or try to get everybody to disperse,” Ida Johnson said of the first officer to arrive.

Ida Johnson, who has lived in the complex for about three years, is Veronica Johnson’s mother and grandmother to Davon Browning, one of the four arrested.

Police said Caige Thomas Theis, 19, Deandre Daniels Jr., 21, Davon Jerome Browning, 19, and a 16-year-old boy, all from Cedar Rapids, were charged with disorderly conduct. Browning also was charged with interference with official acts, and Daniels had three previous warrants for violation of probation for drug charges, according to police.

“Those boys weren’t the problem,” Ida Johnson said. “Those boys were just trying to protect themselves and us. We called the police for help and they turned it around on us.”

In response to the residents’ concerns, Jerman launched an investigation into the incident to review the action taken by the officers, as well as to determine if others need to be held accountable. Public safety spokesman

Friday, police made four additional arrests, charging three juveniles – one age 14 and two 17-year-olds – with rioting and one of the 17-years-olds with interference with officials acts. Larenzo Burnett, 18, also faces a charge rioting. Police said the arrests were made by PCAT officers who coordinated with investigators from the police department’s Criminal Investigations Division.

Greg Buelow said additional arrests are pending.

BY THE NUMBERS

Police records show there were 51 calls for service at the 186-unit complex between July 15 and August 15.

That does not, however, mean there have been 51 violent or criminal incidents there in the past 30 days, Jerman said.

The police chief said the department’s calls for service numbers can easily be misleading if not looked at in context, considering all officer-initiated actions are also counted in the log.

A breakdown of those 51 calls shows that more than half were officer-initiated actions such as special enforcement details, traffic stops or foot patrols. The remaining calls referred to disturbances, domestic incidents and some minor crimes like theft or vandalism.

"The vast majority of people who live at Cedar Valley Townhomes are good, hardworking, law-abiding people."

- Wayne Jerman

Cedar Rapids Chief of Police

 

A search of The Gazette’s archives turned up only two previous reports of violent incidents in the past two years at the complex’s address.

The most recent was a shots fired incident reported March 25. Police said officers responded to Cedar Valley Townhomes where they found empty shell casings in the northern part of the property. No victims were reported and no suspects were arrested.

In 2016, The Gazette reported a man was shot and killed at the complex. Police said officers responded to the complex parking lot where they found Joseph P Perkins Jr., 25, of Chicago, dead with gunshot wounds. A second person was shot in the leg, according to the report.

Police said the shooting was not random, adding a vehicle pulled into the complex’s parking lot, a suspect got out and fired and then fled.

In both of those incidents, Veronica Johnson said, it was non-residents coming on to the property and initiating violence.

“The vast majority of people who live at Cedar Valley Townhomes are good, hardworking, law-abiding people,” Chief Jerman said, adding though the neighborhood has had its troubles, the community mostly deals with the same issues as any other neighborhood.

THE BIGGER ISSUE

For Veronica Johnson, Monday’s brawl is simply an example of a deeper issue that needs be addressed.

“Youth violence is a huge, huge issue right now,” she said. “That’s what we need to be dealing with. Those kids are going to be our future. We’ve got to get it under control now.

 

“Don’t just look at (this fight) as a two-day incident and say we’re going to do a fast fix for this,” she continued. “There’s no fast fix for youth violence. We need a long-term fix.”

Johnson pointed out there are few constructive outlets in Cedar Rapids for teens and young adults, which leads to boredom and the possibility of problems.

The complex holds many events throughout the year to engage the children, teens and young adults who live there, Johnson said, but added she’d like to see the city take a more proactive role in engaging and mentoring the younger generations.

Jerman said his officers regularly engage with the community, which includes several youth activities. Most recently, he said, the department participated in several “Catch with a Cop” events where officers teamed up with the Cedar Rapids Kernels to play games of catch with youngsters.

His officers, he said, also participate in a mentorship program they call “The Littles,” which is similar to a Big Brother or Big Sister program. Additionally, he said, the department’s school resource officers regularly are involved in school and youth programs.

When it comes to youth violence, the chief said, the police department is doing all it can to address the issue.

“The police department takes this very seriously and continues to use a variety of methods through partnering with government and non-government agencies, as well as social organizations to try and prevent juveniles from offending and reoffending,” he said.

MOVING FORWARD

Though Veronica Johnson said she’s disappointed in the way police responded to Monday’s incident, she holds tight to the strong ties she has worked to build between her community and police.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the police,” she said of the complex residents. “Every time we have an event out here, I invite the police because I want the kids here to know the police are good. We have officers come out here all the time and play with the kids, they come and help with our events, they’ve served food at our events. We’ve built a good relationship with the police.”

“It’s never been a truly unsafe neighborhood. There’s people holding multiple jobs, just trying to get by. This incident was an anomaly that really shook the community.”

- Ashley Vanorny

Cedar Rapids City Council Member

 

Mondays’ brawl, she said, has shaken some residents to their core, but she believes the community can work together with the city and law enforcement to address the issue of youth violence and make positive change.

In the meantime, Jerman said the police department will continue with its investigation into Monday’s incident.

“We’ve been interviewing people, reviewing security and cellphone footage, as well as reviewing our officers’ in-car video footage,” he said. “I can’t put a time frame on when this investigation will be complete, but we are going where the information and the leads take us.”

City Council member Ashley Vanorny, whose district includes Cedar Valley Townhomes, said she also is reviewing the matter. Vanorny said she has been speaking with neighbors and police to figure out what, if anything, could have been done differently.

The council member described the fight as a “social conflict” where, perhaps, more could have been done to de-escalate the tension.

Vanorny said she also wants answers to the questions of how police responded to the fight, including how quickly they arrived.

Though the neighborhood has had its struggles over the years, she said, violent outbursts like the ones last week are not a regular occurrence in the “well connected, close community.”

“It’s never been a truly unsafe neighborhood,” she said. “There’s people holding multiple jobs, just trying to get by. This incident was an anomaly that really shook the community.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

B.A. Morelli of The Gazette contributed to this report.

 
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