In 2020 and 2021, Rochester witnessed a dramatic increase in homicides—and this year could be another deadly one for the city, with the number of murders so far in line with last year.
While the causes of the city’s homicide surge are far from simple, three panelists at a Rochester Beacon virtual event Tuesday pointed to several factors and shared their thoughts on potential solutions. The event, “Rochester’s Homicide Crisis,” was sponsored by Bond, Schoeneck & King LLP.
With 81 murders, 2021 saw Rochester’s highest homicide count in two decades, according to the annual report from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. Within the last week, another fatal shooting occurred on Mother’s Day—the city’s 25th homicide in 2022—and two police officers closely escaped being killed when they responded to a call for help last Friday
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this year … we have a similar homicide rate to last year’s,” said Libnah Rodriguez, a researcher with RIT’s CPSI, who has authored the annual homicide report for three years.
Rodriguez was joined in the discussion by Rafael Belliard, owner and operator of R&R Grab & Go, and Anthony Hall, manager of the city’s violence prevention program Pathways For Peace.
Rodriguez pointed to the rise in gun sales as a possible cause for the surge in homicides. As previously reported by the Beacon, Rochester has consistently placed third in New York for the number of crime guns recovered, behind only New York City and Buffalo.
“Even if a fraction of those were to be stolen or given to another individual illegally, we have a lot more guns in circulation now that could end up being used for the next crime or homicide,” Rodriguez said.
Guns are a common sight in the North Clinton neighborhood. Belliard often sees people with guns on their waist.
“And it’s normal, it’s legal, they have a permit for it or whatever,” said Belliard, who previously shared his story of a shooting victim who fled to hide in his store. “But it gets scary because I get a lot of gentlemen who come in here to buy food. When they dig their hands in their pockets to pull their money out to pay, sometimes they pull a gun out and put it in the other pocket. Like it’s natural, like moving a dollar to another pocket.”
Pathways to Peace recently took six guns off the street, which Hall said sounds like a small number in the face of this issue, but he still finds it significant and a potential “game changer” for individuals in crisis. He added that, from an on-the-ground perspective, drug dealing and usage can further fuel the likelihood that an individual will be around guns.
“Where you find drugs, you find guns. Rochester has had an increase in open-air drug markets, particularly around opioids,” Hall said.
In addition, Rodriguez believes civil unrest caused by social justice protests, such as those in the wake of Daniel Prude’s death, have led to a “de-policing” reaction in Rochester. De-policing refers to when law enforcement disengages from the community out of fear of being scrutinized for their actions.
“They may rationalize it and say, ‘Well, they don’t want us in their neighborhood anyway. So, why should I get out the car?’” Rodriguez said, adding that de-policing can be accelerated by the community itself as well. “The community may say, ‘We don’t trust the police to resolve this dispute. So, we should resolve it informally.’ And so that’s how we may end up with a surge of violence.”
As difficult as the situation is, Hall said the Rochester Police Department and the city government are doing what they can to take guns out of circulation. In addition, he is encouraged that the city recently announced $5 million in funding for violence prevention as well as the creation of the multi-department Rochester Peace Collective to be led by Victor Saunders, special advisor to Mayor Malik Evans on violence prevention programs.
Pathways to Peace is also poised to continue a restorative justice approach through the Gun Involved Violence Elimination Initiative, which provides funding to police departments that engage in community-based problem solving; the Rochester Youth Violence Partnership, which educates youth on trauma caused by violence; and Roc the Peace, which allows those who have lost loved ones to violence to tell their story.
“It can be restorative in a sense, because now perpetrators can have a conversation and build relationships with some folks who have been victims,” Hall said.
Perhaps the most significant possible cause for the homicide surge was COVID-19, the panelists said. Rodriguez said the pandemic heightened economic uncertainty and exacerbated poverty in Rochester, which ranked third in terms of poverty rate when compared to 75 other metropolitan areas in CPSI’s findings. Hall and Belliard agreed with this assessment.
“When you get talking and walking with some of the folks in this neighborhood, some of those same folks with a gun on their waist, some of the same folks who may be the cause of that violence, they want out. They seem to be stuck sometimes and if you can lend them a hand and give them an alternative, they’re running for it,” said Belliard, a member of the North Clinton Business Association. “They want someone who can take them to a Walmart or take them into Red Apple (Food Mart), and say ‘I got a connection for you, I can start you at $15, $17 an hour,’ and they’re jumping on it.”
He also recalled one person he helped secure employment for and the positive change that occurred.
“(Now, when he comes to R&R Grab & Go), he says, ‘Man, I’m working overtime, thank you so much for the job,’ he buys a plate and keeps it moving,” Belliard says. “This is a guy who used to be out here everyday. It’s one guy, but for me it feels great. It’s a good feeling inside.”
“A lot of times talking to people on the corner, they want out. They want jobs, but they haven’t been given the opportunity,” he said. “We know this (issue of homicides) isn’t going to change overnight, but we need to keep having empathy, compassion and meeting folks where they’re at.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.