By Kristen Doerschner
ALIQUIPPA — When District Attorney Anthony Berosh speaks to community groups throughout Beaver County, he poses a question to them: How many homicides do you think Aliquippa had last year?
The estimates people typically give are astoundingly high, he said, often ranging from 20 to as high as 40.
In reality, the numbers aren’t even remotely close to that high. There was one homicide in the city in 2013, two in 2012 and none in 2011.
Berosh said when he tells people the actual numbers, they are “flabbergasted.”
Certain factors within a community tend to correlate to higher crime statistics. Berosh said areas of dense population, a higher proportion of lower-income residents, a large number of rental properties and a large number of residents under the age of 25 tend to have more crime.
Statistics do show the instances of violent crime in Aliquippa have been on a downward trend over the past decade.
“You can’t deny that crime occurs in Aliquippa. You can’t deny that crime occurs in any of our communities,” Berosh said.
The problem is the perception many people have regarding that crime.
Berosh is quick to point out the perception problem isn’t Aliquippa’s problem.
“The problem we have as a Beaver County community is the perception we have of Aliquippa,” he said. “They don’t have that problem of perception. We do.”
Residents and community leaders in the city are frustrated by the view so many people seem to have.
Herb Bailey moved to Aliquippa from Nashville, Tenn., nearly two years ago to run the ministry at Uncommon Grounds, a popular coffee shop on Franklin Avenue. He quickly found the city to be an inviting place that he made home and moved his family to Franklin Avenue.
He said he has no hesitation about living in the city or letting his teenage daughters walk through town on their own. He doesn’t view the city as a dangerous place.
But Bailey learned in short order how others view his new home.
He said his daughters — who have an interest in art and attend Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland — would invite friends to visit, but their parents were afraid to let their children go to Aliquippa.
Slowly that is changing, and more parents are allowing their children to visit, he said.
Mayor Dwan Walker sees the pride and the love the city’s residents have for their town and one another. He also follows the numbers to know there has been a drop in violent crime over the years.
“I just wish that people would change their hearts and their perceptions,” he said.
Walker acknowledges that there was a time when crime in the city was much higher and that there is still improvement to be made.
“We know we’re a work in progress," he said. "There are things we have to do better as a city.
“There’s always a microscope on us,” Walker said. “The perception of Aliquippa is maybe because people can’t see past the past.”
Police Chief Donald Couch Jr. expresses the same frustration.
Though Couch considers violent crime in the city “the exception rather than the rule” in recent years, he is keenly aware that the city’s past continues to affect how people think of Aliquippa.
Couch recalled his first day on the job: Jan. 1, 1997. His first call, within an hour of the start of his shift, was for shots being fired. In those days, calls for shots fired — whether they involved someone actually being shot or shots being fired into the air — happened on a daily basis.
Now those calls are infrequent, Couch said.
“Past tragedies haunt us for a long time,” Couch said, adding that when a violent crime does occur now, it continues to perpetuate the stigma.
Couch credits the change to several factors, including help from other law enforcement agencies to crack down on problems, a more open government and more communication with the residents. He said police and city leaders have also become more involved with the youth in the community.
“Dwan was right on target when he said we’ve got to affect these kids at school,” Couch said.
“You know what our biggest problem now is?” Couch said. With a small laugh, indicating a sense of relief at what he was about to say, he answered his own question: fights among teenage girls.
“How far have we come that this is what we’re frustrated over?” he said.
Some of the more recent incidents of violent crime involved perpetrators who were not from Aliquippa, and weren’t even from Beaver County, Couch said.
Much of the violent crime that does occur, not only in Aliquippa, but across the county, involves people who know one another, who have a history: domestic violence, feuds, drug deals gone bad.
“It’s very rare where you have total strangers get involved in an incident, not that it doesn’t happen,” Berosh said.
The violence that does occur among residents — people who are neighbors, friends, family — seems to be one of the hardest things for Walker to cope with.
“All of us know each other. That’s why it hurts me,” he said.
Walker has experienced that hurt, not only with members of the community who have lost loved ones to violence, but in his immediate family, when his sister was killed by a former boyfriend in 2009.
“I’ve loved and lost,” he said.
Despite that hurt, Walker chose to stay in the city. It’s the place where his parents refuse to leave because his mother has always said, “We can’t go. This is where our family lives. Home is home.”
Uncommon Grounds has become a focal point in the city’s downtown area. Visitors walking in, even strangers, are greeted by people socializing in the sunshine outside the entrance.
Walker smiles as he refers to the coffee shop as the “United Nations.”
A look around the bustling building on a recent morning confirmed that characterization.
People from different backgrounds wandered in and out, greeting each other. Friends chatted in small groups. City leaders stopped in for a cup of coffee and to say hello to everyone.
A group of teenagers on a mission trip from the All Saints Anglican Church in Woodbridge, Va., sat around tables eating breakfast and gearing up for a day of work. They’ve been back to the city each summer for the past several years.
“If it were dangerous, we wouldn’t have people returning,” Bailey said.
One 15-year-old girl said she was skeptical the first time she was supposed to join the mission trip to Aliquippa.
“I loved it,” she said of her impression after her first trip. “It’s a really beautiful city, and all the people here are so kind.”
The Rev. Marvin C. Moreland Sr., pastor of Deliverance Temple Ministries Church of God in Christ, was born and raised in Aliquippa and returned to make his life here after going away to school. He wants people to look past the perceptions they have and see Aliquippa for what it really is, to see the sense of community and family and faith the residents have.
“I’m a product of Aliquippa. Because of what Aliquippa is, I am. There’s some good stuff here,” Moreland said.
Anthony Adamson spent his youth on the streets selling drugs and hanging out in nightclubs “drawn into things, temptation, worldly desires.
“I was basically just tired,” he said. “But that stronghold kept compelling me to go back.”
Eventually it all caught up with him. After doing prison time, Adamson returned to Aliquippa and changed his life. He now spends his time encouraging others, an example of the change Walker touts.
Adamson said he thanks God for opening his eyes and changing his heart, and he hopes that God will change the hearts of others to see Aliquippa in a different light.
“Come see for yourself,” he said.
Walker also wants people to visit Aliquippa, to talk to the residents and to hear their stories.
“Pride has to motivate us to keep moving forward,” Walker said. “The kids here, the people here are amazing. They love. We have to know what we have.
“You can find bad anywhere. You can find bad if you want it,” he said. “The city has truly changed.”