FARGO — The death of Jason Allen Halvorson near downtown Fargo hit home for many city residents, Mayor Tim Mahoney said Wednesday, June 19.
Nicknamed Jay, the 38-year-old food truck owner knew a bunch of people and worked to promote downtown. It has left some wondering if anyone could have done anything to prevent the shooting that took Halvorson’s life on June 7, Mahoney said.
“It’s almost like one of your friends died,” the mayor said. “That’s what made this one tough is that a lot of people knew him.”
Halvorson’s death has sparked conversations about safety in downtown Fargo and the rest of the city, and raised questions of whether police can do more to reduce violent crime and what city leaders are doing to address the issue.
Violent crime rates in Fargo have nearly mirrored national rates for five years ending in 2017, according to a Forum analysis of FBI and U.S. Census data. The most recent data shows there were 406 violent crimes per 100,000 Fargo residents in 2017, slightly higher than the national rate of 394 but much higher than North Dakota’s rate of 281.
Fargo's violent crime rate — which includes homicides, robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults — saw a slight increase from 2014 to 2017, according to the numbers.
Mahoney and Police Chief David Todd told The Forum that Fargo is still a safe city, attributing the rise in crime rates to population growth. Numbers from the police department show downtown Fargo isn’t anymore dangerous than other parts of the city.
The city has taken steps to improve safety over the years, Todd said, including a move to keep officers on a consistent beat, using data to track crime, and forming plans to target areas with criminal trends.
Compared with other cities
In the early 1990s, the U.S. violent crime rate was about six times that of Fargo, which had 122 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to The Forum's analysis.
The national violent crime rate dropped to a 20-year low of 362 in 2014. In Fargo, the rate began to rise in the mid-2000s before surpassing the national rate in 2013, a first for the city.
Fargo's violent crime rates, for the most part, have been higher than other large cities in North Dakota and some in Minnesota over the last decade ending in 2017.
Duluth, Minn., with a population of about 86,000 residents, often trended near Fargo’s violent crime rates from 2006 to 2016. Fargo has a population of about 122,000.
In Rochester, Minn., violent crime rates fell well below Fargo’s from 2006 to 2017, while Sioux Falls, S.D., has often been well above the North Dakota city.
The FBI warns against comparing the crime data of one city with others because various factors — cultural differences, economic situations and even attitudes toward crime, to name a few — play a role in crime rates. Also, the numbers only reflect reported crimes.
Todd agreed it's hard to compare Fargo with other cities. Even within the city, it’s hard to compare districts.
District 1, or Fargo’s downtown police district, is the busiest area for officers — it has had the most calls for service in the last five years, according to data obtained by The Forum. Those numbers also show the downtown district has the fewest violent crimes of the city's four districts.
It’s difficult to compare numbers in different districts because the areas differ in size and population density, Todd said. For example, the downtown district is the smallest geographically, meaning officers have less area to cover and can patrol the area more often, the chief said.
It's worth noting that violent crimes in Fargo are less likely to be perpetrated by a stranger — 16% of victims were attacked by someone they didn’t know — than on the national level (24%), according to FBI data from 2008 to 2017.
Policing tactics evolve
Policing has steadily changed over the last 20 years. Todd recalls a time when Fargo officers worked a different beat every shift.
“You really didn’t have ownership,” he said. “You went around and you put Band-Aids on things to get yourself through that shift, but you didn’t solve the problem in a more permanent nature.”
The police department started to assign officers to beats for longer periods of time, helping officers build relationships with residents, Todd said. In the early 2000s, officers began to use data to find trends in crime and form plans of action, he said.
Eventually in the 2010s, the department began working to prevent crimes through public education, identifying potential areas of crime and building partnerships with the community.
Scott Dauner, 57, of Hawley, Minn., works in downtown Fargo and said he doesn’t notice much violent crime during the day. The late night might bring trouble, and people have to be more aware of their surroundings, he said.
"You have violent crime in any city," he said.
Another downtown worker, Sadie Rudolph, 37, of West Fargo, said she has noticed the increase in crime, calling it interesting and concerning.
Still, both Dauner and Rudolph said they feel safe. “We're growing as a city, as a community and encountering different things, and crime is probably some of that,” Rudolph said.
The police department has tried to educate the public on various topics, including criminal trends and domestic violence. Education, as well as patrolling hot spots, helped reduce crime in the downtown district three years in a row, Lt. Chris Helmick said in the department’s annual report for 2018.
Todd said people want to move to Fargo because of its quality of life. The city wants to maintain vibrancy and a feeling of safety, he added.
Todd recalled a central Fargo neighborhood where people said they felt hearing gunshots was normal.
“That’s not acceptable,” he said, adding that the city focused resources on that neighborhood to make it safe.