Government

Cedar Rapids ambassadors help calm fighting, drinking after tense 2018

CEDAR RAPIDS — Outside the main entrance to the Cedar Rapids Public Library an altercation was brewing last Wednesday.

A woman standing next to one man was shouting obscenities back and forth with a second man, aggressively getting closer and closer. Michael Rundle, 25, noticed the scene unfolding from inside the lobby and hustled to intervene along with his colleague, Tim Yuengel, 58.

Yuengel talked to the third person, while Rundle — a physically imposing man — placed himself between the two groups and slowly walked the other two back, attempting de-escalate tensions.

“They’d been drinking all day,” Rundle said. “I know them, they know me. That helps. I just asked them to take a walk, and they didn’t want to end up in jail over this.”

Rundle and Yuengel, Yuengel’s wife Denise, 58, and Crystal Hall, 28, are the faces of a new downtown ambassadors initiative. The initiative is intended to calm situations before they become problems in the downtown area — particularly at Greene Square, the library and the Ground Transportation Center — remind people of rules, such as no drinking or smoking, reduce pressure on police, inform people in need about resources, collect trash and otherwise be a positive influence on the core of the community.

Without the ambassadors intervention, the conflict on Wednesday could have boiled over as they have too often in the past in this area.

The ambassador program was one of a couple initiatives launched after a particularly hostile summer of 2018 in and around Greene Square, emphasized by the fatal beating of Scott Dexter in the park.

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Willis Dady Homeless Services agreed to administrate the program, which employs formerly homeless individuals — some of whom are in recovery from substance or alcohol abuse — who receive $10.25 per hour. The city parks department, transit, the Cedar Rapids Public Library, the Downtown District, police, Linn County Supervisors and City Council have provided funding and/or guidance.

Cedar Rapids police data showed modest decreases in calls for service in a few key areas, including dips in harassment from 14 to 12, disturbance from 122 to 109, domestic disturbance from 23 to 18, indecent exposure from five to one, and trespassing from 28 to 16, when comparing June through August 2018 to 2019.

Other areas were level or up, such as vandalism, drugs, weapons, unconscious people and attempted suicides.

“I think the data has shown some good things where we’d seen problems in the past,” Lt. Tony Robinson said. “I can’t say it is 100 percent due to the ambassadors ... but it’s been a good year as a pilot year.

“There is room for improvement. They’ve been received well. The business community seems to like it.”

Robinson, along with the ambassadors, said the installation of security cameras around the park also have helped deter violence and other illegal activity. While it has been a good start, Robinson said, he’d like to see the ambassadors’ territory expanded and more training to help them do their job more effectively and have better outcomes with their public interactions.

The ambassadors cover the river to Seventh Street SE and Second to Fifth Avenues SE, with 12:30-to-4:30 p.m. and 3:30-to-7:30 p.m. shifts each day — although Robinson estimates 90 percent of their time is spent in Greene Square unless it is raining, in which case they move to the library.

The initiative launched in June, with a start-up budget of $30,000, and is scheduled to conclude for the year at the end of September. Robinson and others want to see it continue next spring.

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Funding is being lined up to do so, said Emily Zimmon, who led the effort as support services director for Willis Dady.

While the police call numbers are not dramatic, Zimmon said what is notable is the trend line that had been going up this year turned the other direction. Over the course of the summer, the ambassadors got more effective at their jobs, she said.

Their number of interactions increased as did the volume of trash and recycling they collected, according to data provided by Zimmon.

The ambassadors fill out a daily log of their interactions. The log shows smoking, drinking, substance abuse, harassment and conflicts have been their most frequent rule-violation reminders.

“We originally were going to stop after Labor Day,” Zimmon said. “But we saw it was beneficial through the past few months, so we got some additional funding to continue through end of the month.”

Library Director Dara Schmidt described the area, according to meeting notes, as “much cleaner” and a “different feeling” around Greene Square and the library. Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Downtown District called the program an “absolute success.”

“I think at first some people viewed them as snitches,” Thoeming said. “But they are there to keep people from getting in trouble. They can remind people, ‘Here’s the rules,’ keep things nice and serve as resources.”

Denise Yuengel described herself as there to “keep the peace, not be a peace officer.” While Rundle’s size is an asset for him when dealing with conflicts, Yuengel uses a mix of distraction, listening and a dose of humor.

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“The big thing is never pick a side,” Yuengel said. “People realize we are here to keep them from going to jail.

“You get them laughing, get them distracted, and they calm down, but you still get your die hards, and they end up in jail.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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