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Patrick Springer, Published July 04 2009

Shooting stirs old concerns in Moorhead's Romkey Park neighborhood

Moorhead’s Romkey Park neighborhood is quiet these days. The cautious kind of quiet, residents say, indicating that people in the area remain on edge since the June 20 shotgun killing of a teenager who entered a stranger’s apartment there.

Christian Gott says several residents have moved out of the south-central neighborhood since the shooting death of 17-year-old Joel LaFromboise.

“It’s been a lot quieter since the incident,” Gott said. “Everyone’s looking the other way.”

Still, Moorhead police officers maintain that the Romkey Park neighborhood, the scene of a riot 11 years ago tonight, is much more orderly than it once was.

“I’ll tell you it’s definitely a quieter place than it was 10 years ago,” said Lt. Joel Scharf of the Moorhead Police Department.

Still, police acknowledge that the area southeast of Minnesota State University Moorhead has its challenges.

Officers maintain a heavy presence there and frequently respond to domestic disputes or disturbances, police logs indicate.

The Romkey Park neighborhood is one of the city’s most diverse, and also one of its poorest and densely populated.

At the time of the riot, the area was home primarily to Caucasian and Hispanic residents, and tensions occasionally existed between the two.

Now the area includes Bosnians, Kurds, American Indians, African- Americans and African immigrants, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger.

“Everybody around here gets along, I would have to say,” said Gott, an American Indian. Gott, 18, was a friend of LaFromboise and one of the organizers of a Wednesday memorial for him in Romkey Park.

Criselda Deleon, who moved to the neighborhood five years ago, agrees residents generally get along well.

But Deleon worries that the neighborhood’s problems have become more noticeable in recent months. Late at night, she said, drinking and boisterous behavior can be a problem.

“The neighbors call the police when they see a whole bunch of kids together,” Deleon said. “They’re afraid.”

But Deleon’s landlord, Lydell Thorson, who owns three apartments near Romkey Park, said he wouldn’t have invested in the neighborhood if he thought it was unstable.

“Maybe 10 years ago, I’d be afraid of walking down the street here,” said Thorson, 57, a lifelong Moorhead resident. “Today you could put a tent out here and camp overnight.”

When renting an apartment, Thorson conducts a criminal background check and credit check before approving tenants, a program many property owners in the neighborhood use.

That helps to keep crime out of the area, Thorson said.

“It’s much better than it used to be,” he said, adding that his son lives in a nearby duplex. “I would never have bought these buildings four years ago if it was a problem.”

A decade ago, a handful of Romkey Park families were heavily involved in criminal activity, and very adversarial to police, Ebinger said. But that’s not the case now, he added.

Still, the aftermath of the LaFromboise shooting has ignited racial undercurrents.

Octavio Gomez, a community organizer and chairman of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission, said it’s impossible to remove the element of race in public perceptions of the shooting.

The man who shot LaFromboise is white, and LaFromboise was an American Indian.

No charges have been filed against Vernon Allen, 47, who shot LaFromboise after the teen entered his apartment. Allen told police LaFromboise refused to leave, and grabbed the barrel of his shotgun before Allen fired in self-defense.

Deleon suspects that if the races were reversed – and a teenaged American Indian shot a middle-aged white man – the shooter would be in jail, charged with a crime.

That’s absolutely not the case, Ebinger said.

“I want to assure them that we don’t take race into account when we investigate this, when we investigate anything,” the police chief said.

Results from the LaFromboise autopsy and toxicology report are expected within a couple of weeks, and the results will be made public with the conclusion of the investigation, Ebinger said.

“Once this is in, this case will be as transparent as glass,” he added. “We can’t and won’t hide anything.”

After the Romkey Park neighborhood riot on July 4, 1998 – following the fireworks display at MSUM – the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated purported racism in Moorhead.

The commission, which issued a report in 2001, concluded that minority residents in Moorhead were unfairly targeted by police, were underrepresented in the public work force and discriminated against in school.

A local group later laid out goals to curb racism, but officials acknowledged last year that more should be done to improve race relations.

Duke Schempp, director of People Escaping Poverty Project, which has long been active in Romkey Park, said his group is about to revisit the issue.

It plans to evaluate police and public safety, education, employment and housing to determine whether discrimination remains an issue.

“We plan on spending a whole year doing this,” Schempp said. The review was planned before the shooting, and briefly delayed by it. “We took a step back because of the incident that happened.”

Ebinger said the Romkey Park neighborhood has benefited from six to 10 years of community policing and school resource officers who have forged relationships in the area.

He rejects the idea that the area has any systemic racism, though race will always be an issue in isolated incidents. Even homogenous neighborhoods have problems, he said.

A recent meeting between police officers and kids in Romkey Park drew a crowd of 150, including parents.

“I think it’s a good sign,” Ebinger said. “This is a healthy community where people are coming out together. We’re talking, they’re being heard. We’re going to continue.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522