Finding ways to solve Rochester’s homicide crisis

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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.”

Hall concurred.

“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.

One thought on “Finding ways to solve Rochester’s homicide crisis

  1. I watched the Zoom meeting and was disappointed that two of the scheduled presenters didn’t show up. Two of the more critical people needed for this conversation. I was also disappointed that viewers weren’t given time to ask questions and have them answered.
    The presenters did a good job presenting the issue from their, dare I say, rather narrow perspective.
    It’s either naive or disingenuous to keep the definition of Gangs within the narrow confines of known national or international criminal organizations. Perhaps that’s an artifact of how the DOJ or some other agency defines them, but in our city, I posit any group of more than three people who collaborate to sell, buy, distribute, or financially gain from illicit drugs and use force, intimidation or violence to further their enterprise is a gang. Years ago the RPD told us that what we neighbors call gangs are just loosely affiliated groups of young people. Listen to the people living in the city as to what they know are gangs and develop strategies around our definition.
    Looking at one of the graphs it was clear to me that violence ebbs and flows over time in a sort of sine wave. The amplitude varies and it appears that we are at a peak, but police intervention and sadly killings of gang members by other gang members reduce the number of people perpetrating violent crimes. We also have attrition of recidivist lifelong hardcore criminals who may be mentoring some of the young people on the street to pick up where they themselves left off when they were convicted and went to prison being violated and sent back to prison. I didn’t see any statistics on the murders that are solved, and how many were committed by repeat violent offenders.
    I’d also love to see RIT and the City gather statistics going back to 1962-63 after the riots, as to how much money was invested in programs and organizations proposing to drive down murder rates. I’d also like to see a hard statistical correlation between the dollars invested and the troughs in murders committed as a result of that investment, and what the per-unit cost is. IE: $500 dollars, $10,000, a million?
    It’s likely that poverty may be a crucible of violent behavior and murder, but I also suspect that it’s more anecdotal than proven science. There are plenty of places around the world where people live in abject poverty and don’t kill one another. There have to be other factors. Family cultural history, age of the mother when the child was born, lack of valuing education, drug abuse, and violence at home. There are a plethora of potential causes or contributing factors, but undoubtedly how someone is brought up and valued and what behaviors are molded are most prominent. I do like the concept of a guaranteed basic income, but the Mayor and his advisors need to be very deliberate about the criteria they use to choose participants and how the program is monitored and outcomes reported. Frankly, maybe he should add the five million to that pot to use to deter young people from choosing violence.
    I’d also like to see an estimate of how many “lost” young people that two of the presenters interact with daily actually go out and shoot someone. How many killers or shooters do we think there are? One hundred, 200, a thousand? Maybe the 5 million dollars could be put to better use by identifying and locating these young people and providing them with a private tutor, three meals a day, decent housing, and intense trauma counseling and maybe even relocating them away from their neighborhoods and save a ton of money in the process. In days gone by, we’d have them join the Marines to get straightened out. I also think it’s time to restart programs like the CCC of the 1930s where these young people would have a job, food, housing, and gain some skills. Throwing money to increase the size of bureaucracies or add more programs just hasn’t worked. Save the money and find new creative ways to get these young people out of the environment they’re in and support them in different more cost-effective ways that can actually be measured objectively. I thank you for starting this conversation. I think it should be continued with a wider group of diverse presenters.

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