The city of Rochester experienced an abnormal year in 2020, and not just because of the pandemic. It witnessed historic highs in violent crime, unlike any year in the last two decades.
Two working papers in a series of five from the Center for Public Safety Initiatives at Rochester Institute of Technology seek to examine and understand the factors contributing to the increased violence, both locally and nationally. The series will study shooting incidents, victims, homicides and arrests for illegal weapons possession.
The first two papers in the series were authored by Kayla Macano, director of operations at the Gun Involved Violence Elimination Initiative, Irshad Altheimer, director, and Janelle Duda-Banwar, senior research associate at the Center for Public Safety Initiatives. The research looks at shooting victims, both fatal and nonfatal, last year and over time.
Murders rose across the nation in 2020, by nearly 30 percent. The violence was spread across cities, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. When Monroe County shut down because of COVID-19 in March 2020, it was a quiet month where violence was concerned—the first quarter recorded the fewest shooting victims (10). The remaining months of the year had the highest monthly totals for violence. The greatest number of victims (48) were in July. Every single month after May 2020 had more shooting victims that the respective month in the previous five years, the researchers found.
Historically, summer months see an increase in crime and violence. The propensity for heated conversations increases with outside activities and parties. Though the number of shooting victims was higher last year, it was the year 2016 that saw the highest percentage of fatal shootings—higher than 14 percent. In 2020 it was 12.35 percent.
There were 333 shooting victims in 2020: 42 of them fatal. A third of incidents had multiple victims, higher than those in the previous five years (16 percent to 26 percent). Eighty-two percent of the victims were male, consistent with past years. Most victims were 22 years of age, with the median age at 26. Most of the victims (88 percent) were Black, classified as non-Hispanic. White Hispanics and White non-Hispanics were the remaining victims. The five-year average for Black non-Hispanic victims is 82.5 percent.
The reasons behind last year’s rise in violence aren’t very clear. The stress of the pandemic, lockdown restrictions, interpersonal issues and an increase in guns in circulation can create a perfect storm for violence, authors of the working paper suggest.
“We can hypothesize that the COVID-19 pandemic did have an impact on crime and violence in 2020, but future research will look deeper into this, and other potential factors,” a paper titled “Part II: Changes in Shooting Victims Over Time” states.
Both papers ask the question on the minds of many residents: how does Rochester move forward after such a violent year?
One option, authors say, is using a two-pronged approach, with enforcement of gun offenders and services and assistance for victims and families. Shooting victims and perpetrators, however, are not easily divided into those categories. A shooter in October, for example, may have been a victim in June. Responding to disputes is not a cookie cutter approach. Disputes are different, each requiring a tailored response. Still, intervention can stop small issues from escalating.
Already there have been 64 homicides in 2021, surpassing last year’s total, and the highest in decades. The Center for Public Safety Initiatives’ series expect to explore strategies to sustain violence reduction efforts, in addition to understanding the factors behind the deadly 2020.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.