Annual homicides in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and other big U.S. cities far outnumber those recorded here. But in 2021, Rochester had more murders per capita than any of them.
A new report by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives shows that Rochester’s per-capita homicide rate ranked highest in New York and near the top among the two dozen U.S. cities studied.
In 2021, Rochester had 38.4 homicides per 100,000 people—fifth highest of the 24 cities tracked by CPSI’s annual report. That rate was higher than in cities often associated with high crime like New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Compton, Calif., as well as other upstate cities such as Buffalo and Syracuse.
In addition, no other city in the study rose as fast in the last few years. Since 2019, Rochester’s per-capita homicide rate has climbed from 14th to 10th in 2020 and fifth last year.
Of the four cities that had a higher per-capita ranking than Rochester, only Richmond, Va., has a comparable population size. The other cities—New Orleans, Detroit and St. Louis—have consistently ranked in the top three since CPSI began comparing cities six years ago.
Per-capita homicide rates in Upstate New York’s three largest cities have remained relatively stable since CPSI launched the annual report, with Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse together averaging about 17.8 per 100,000 people. However, in the 2021 report Rochester pulled away from its fellow upstate cities—the rates were 24.1 for Buffalo and 19.6 for Syracuse.
“Per-capita status is really important because you might think a place is very dangerous, like New York City—they had over 400 (homicides), which sounds scary. But when you account for population, they ended up being the lowest on our list this year,” says Libnah Rodriguez, an RIT graduate student and author of the report.
CPSI, whose purpose is to contribute to criminal justice strategy through research as well as train undergraduate and graduate students, has published a working paper about homicide statistics annually since 2016. Its original topic of study was the fluctuations in Rochester’s homicide rate.
Since then, the report has grown to include other sections examining demographics, locations, ages, and weapon type as well as a comparison of Rochester to other cities in the United States. The 24 cities highlighted in the report were selected to represent different population sizes and geographical locations.
The report synthesizes the Rochester Police Department’s open data portal along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer tool. Official counts of homicides are not confirmed by official sources until six months into the following year, so CPSI anticipates slight changes in homicide counts when official data are released.
“We do it annually as a way to provide insight into Rochester’s trends,” Rodriguez says. “We hope it encourages local leaders and policymakers to embrace evidence-based strategies when shown the numbers.”
Rodriguez, who is working toward a doctoral degree in criminal studies, is a Jane Research Fellow who began working at CPSI in 2017 as a first-year undergraduate. She took over writing the annual report in 2019.
The increase in Rochester’s per-capita rate is linked directly to a sharp rise in the total number of homicides, which hit a record high last year. The total of 81 homicides in 2021 was up from 52 in 2020 and 32 in 2019. By comparison, Buffalo had 67 and Syracuse had 29 in 2021.
Previous CPSI analyses have shown that yearly homicide fluctuations in Rochester of up to 20 percent are common. The 63 percent jump in 2020 and 55 percent increase in 2021 are well above that range, however. Over the last two decades, this has happened three other times, and never to the same degree. It also hasn’t crossed the 20 percent growth mark in consecutive years.
The last time the annual number of homicides in Rochester rose more than 20 percent was in 2010, when it grew by 45 percent. The following year, the number retreated to average levels for the city.
Rodriguez noted the unusually high increase in her 2020 homicide rate report and acknowledges that an even bigger jump a year later is “worrying.” However, she also says that it is too soon to determine whether the two years are an anomaly or signal a long-term trend.
“I don’t want anyone to assume homicide will still be increasing for the next 10 years,” says Rodriguez. “Nationally, there is more data to pull from, meaning correlation is also easier. We don’t have that same level of data.”
Among other findings, the report identifies two “hotspots” areas located in the southwestern part of the city where several homicides occurred within close proximity.
The first hotspot includes three homicides that occurred along Genesee Street near S. Plymouth Avenue.
“All three incidents transpired less than .07 miles of each other, which is equivalent to the distance of a soccer field,” the report states.
The second hotspot is located at Seward Street near Columbia Avenue and includes two incidents separated by 0.3 miles, or the size of a football field. The report also notes that the Northeast Quadrant and the Lyell-Otis neighborhood had high numbers for 2021.
Over the past 20 years, the ZIP codes 14611, which includes the Seward Street location, and 14621, which includes the Northeast Quadrant, consistently have had the highest number of homicides in the city. Those locations also had the lowest median income per household and highest concentration of people of color in the city, according to data from the census.
Disparity by race
Another notable finding was the racial disparity in homicide victims. The CPSI report found that the number of Black homicide victims in Rochester is disproportionate when compared with the overall population. While Blacks represent 40 percent of the city’s population, in 2021 they accounted for 76 percent of homicide victims.
The report notes: “This, when coupled with the fact that Black or African-Americans represent 52.4% of victims on the national level, indicate that racial disparities exist in homicide victimizations. Moreover, while White victims represented only 10% of homicides in Rochester, they account for 43.1% of victims on the national level.”
While the reasons for the increased homicide rate since 2019 are not clear, Rodriguez suspects that a combination of economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest surrounding the highly publicized deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester could be part of the cause.
She also points to an increase in gun ownership. Approximately three out of four Rochester homicides occurred with a firearm in 2021, which is in line with national trends.
In 2020, there was an 85 percent increase in pistol permit applications in Monroe County. The availability of illegal firearms, as previously reported by the Rochester Beacon, has also increased. According to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the number of guns traced in a criminal activity in Rochester rose from 548 in 2019 to 708 in 2020.
With many possible causes, Rodriguez stresses that the community should avoid making quick conclusions.
“These are great predictors and very likely related, but more research is needed to concretely link these to (the increased homicide rate),” Rodriguez says.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.