From a ‘Hall of Doom’ to a place for the people

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Rochester’s Public Safety Building (Photo: Henry Litsky)

The Rochester Police Department’s new deputy chief of community engagement often wears a bow tie, half out of necessity, and half personal style.

“For me, at my old job, I wore a suit and bow tie everyday. There was always a nice navy blue suit in the closet,” Keith Stith says, referring to a very long law enforcement career in Hudson County, N.J.

“I know it’s a different look,” he admits. “But if people remember, ‘He’s the guy with the bow tie,’ that’s great with me.”

It’s a style that fits with his views on community engagement. He knows Rochester is a city with a complex and recently controversial history with law enforcement, and trust needs to be rebuilt. Being approachable and having an open ear, even to the controversy, is an important step forward. Stith was sworn in only four months ago (as of December his full uniform hadn’t arrived yet), and knows, as much as it might frustrate others, that process will take time.

Keith Stith speaks with students at McQuaid Jesuit High School

“It’s the steps of ‘acknowledge, repair, and empower.’ Acknowledging there is a problem, apologizing for it. Then, let’s repair this relationship,” Stith says. “Strong communities bring down crime rates. You can’t do policing on your own, we know this; we know we need the community.

“Then, when we begin to trust each other again, I want to empower you. I want to ask you to take a little more control over the community. I want you to lead,” he continues. “Maybe a community crime meeting starts off with a law enforcement officer leading, but then it transitions to a point where they’re just coproducing now. That’s the process where we want to be.”

Johnny Harris, senior pastor at the Provision Full Gospel Church in the city’s northeast, first met Stith at a Faith & Blue event.

“When you have a divide, between law enforcement and the community or between law enforcement and clergy, it damages all sides,” Harris says. “I recognized right off the bat, he’s not there to take a side. It’s not just a job, it’s his passion.”

“He’s worked very diligently to get out and learn about the community in his short time here,” says Kristine Durante, assistant chief of Monroe County Probation and Community Corrections.

Even before Stith’s arrival, plans to restore trust were being put in place. Stith wants to make sure everyone who needs to be in the process is involved as the community engagement model is developed. Ultimately, that model will serve as a living document for the community and law enforcement to overcome any issues they encounter in the future.

“This plan, it isn’t Keith Stith’s plan, it’s a co-production. I want it to be everyone’s plan; I want everyone to have a voice,” Stith says.

The man from Jersey 

Stith brings with him more than 30 years experience at multiple levels of the law enforcement system, creating or being a part of task forces each time, and working alongside the community on some of the largest police reforms in the country.

However, in the late 1980s, when Stith was a college graduate working as a clerk at a bank in Manhattan, he did not have those ideas in mind. In fact, it was a chance errand he ran for his mother that changed the course of his life.

“True story, one Saturday, my mother sent me to the post office,” he recounts.

At the location, NAACP members were sharing news of their successful lawsuit against discriminatory elements of the civil service examination, which sparked Stith’s interest in serving the community. After learning more about the process and taking the test, Stith began his career at the Union County Sheriff’s Office in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1990.

Four years later, he transitioned to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, which covers the area between Newark and Manhattan, first serving as a detective in the Narcotics Task Force. In 2000, Stith was promoted to sergeant and he co-created the Municipal Task Force, which served as a flexible-response unit.

“We had local police officers and county detectives working together (in the Municipal Task Force). So, if a town was having an issue, we could go out and address that issue specifically for them,” Stith says.

Seven years after that, he became a lieutenant tasked with addressing the proliferation of street gangs and gun violence in Hudson County, for which he formed a Gang Task Force. He says that experience helped when he was made captain in 2011 and was assigned to the Homicide Task Force.

“We started to really look at gang-related homicides and, ultimately, we ended up with something like a 90 percent solve rate with that category,” he says, quickly adding, “I’m not going to take all the credit for that success because in Hudson County we really had a really good solve rate already. And that’s with the help of the community, which is so important.”

In comparison, an analysis of end-of-year RPD data found the clearance rate by arrest for violent crimes here in 2019 was 47 percent, slightly higher than the FBI data average rate for cities with populations from 100,000 to 249,999 (43 percent), but lower than the average rate for the northeast region (54 percent).

In 2015, Stith served as the first African-American deputy chief in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. During this period of his career, from working on statewide police reform, Stith believes he established a community connection.

“New Jersey led the country in police reform. I’m proud to say I was part of those conversations. In fact, I was appointed to the task force that looked at individuals, when they were having a mental crisis, who encounter a police officer,” he says.

Stith’s career in Hudson County culminated when he was also the first African American to be promoted in 2020 to the rank of chief of detectives. It was his father’s failing health and eventual passing that prompted Stith to retire from the position.

“My father was my best friend and I needed to take care of my mother. But, I probably retired prematurely,” he reflects. “Sitting at home, I kept feeling like ‘I shouldn’t be done yet.’”

When he learned of the opportunity in Rochester, it seemed the right fit with his expertise.

“I did know I wasn’t going to come out of retirement until the right opportunity came up. And when this came up, it really felt like the right opportunity. Because (of) all the knowledge and experience I had gained, I felt, ‘Wow, I can apply that here,’” says Stith, who put his fledgling public safety consulting business on hold.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t committed to the city of Rochester,” he notes. “As long as they can put up with me, I’m here.”

Community and communication 

Rochester is facing public safety issues on various fronts. Trust has been lost between the RPD and the Rochester community, most significantly during the protests following revelations about Daniel Prude’s death. Other events, such as the pepper spraying of a nine-year-old girl in 2021, did not help close that divide.

Pastor Johnny Harris

“There has absolutely been a breakdown of trust,” says Harris, who has worked closely with Stith on the community engagement model.

“I’ll go to the ‘Super Friends’ here, there’s a ‘Hall of Justice’ and a ‘Hall of Doom,’’ he says, referring to the animated TV series from the 1970s and ’80s about a team of superheroes. “Well, that public safety building feels like a Hall of Doom where (people will) protest, but they don’t want to go in. (Stith) is trying to change that narrative to make it a place for the people.”

In addition, the COVID pandemic meant less face-to-face policing efforts, driving down effective proactive policing, and chances for positive outreach.

“Rochester is a big civil rights town and I respect that. There are activists here as well and I respect that too,” Stith says. “One thing I love is people are reasonable. They’re vigilant, they’ll say, ‘Show me,’ but they’ll respond to you if you do good work.”

“From my perspective, he’s had impeccable community involvement. He’s not just popping up at these events or at a church service like a political figure, he’s staying through the entire meeting,” says Harris.

Stith wants to improve connections by updating training and improving education outreach, as confusion can lead to negative outcomes between Rochester’s New American community and the police.

“I’m glad he’s taken the time to reach out (to the New American community). It’s not something that everyone would do,” says Bijaya Khadka, founder of House of Refuge and current chairperson of the New Americans Advisory Council.

Stith also believes this approach should be replicated in recruitment efforts. Law enforcement should “reflect our changing community,” citing studies showing those departments tend to have fewer issues. However, Stith sees the need for adjustments, after hearing the story of a refugee family’s son giving up on becoming a police officer due to misunderstandings about the test process.

Keith Stith engages with Bijaya Khadka, founder of House of Refuge, at an event.

At the same time, as an outside observer comparing RPD with other departments he has worked in, the new deputy chief sees good outcomes and hard work happening in the department that often goes unnoticed or unheeded. Stith points to an issue of communication.

“Communication has to get better, there’s no secret here,” Stith says. “It’s about the community’s perception of you, because who determines your legitimacy? It’s the community.”

Rising rates

Though property crime has declined, the last three years have seen higher levels of both violent crime and illegal gun supply

From 2019 to 2020, the number of victims of gun-related homicides nearly doubled, from 22 to 43, and since then have increased even further, with 57 in 2021 and 63 in 2022. Per capita, Rochester had the highest homicide rate across the entire state in 2021.

“The common denominator on all of these incidents, whether premeditated or circumstantial, is illegal guns. I will continue to include my voice among the mayors and urban leaders calling for common-sense solutions to these very predictable challenges,” Mayor Malik Evans said in a statement following a shooting over the 2022 July 4th weekend. 

In December, Evans announced the city had launched a lawsuit against gun manufacturers.

In 2022, RPD had confiscated over 700 guns through November. That number puts it on par with 2021 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ National Tracing Center, which shows Rochester to have the highest per-capita rate of illegal guns traced to the city.

“It’s the most I’ve ever seen, almost two a day,” RPD Chief David Smith said at a forum in June about the number of police-confiscated firearms.

And this rise has tended to chiefly affect people of color and the impoverished. Most violent crimes were concentrated in the “Crescent” area of the city, primarily in the Genesee, Lake, and Clinton patrol sections.

“Speaking candidly, (Stith) is also one of us. He’s African American and the majority of who this issue really affects is Black people,” says Harris. “So, he understands things on that level too.”

Connecting with everyone 

On the surface, community engagement might not seem connected to violent crime. In Stith’s experience, it can make all the difference, especially when gathering information for an investigation.

For example, due to his work with the Gang Task Force in Hudson County, he “knew the kids” and who he could speak to with the knowledge of homicide incidents after he became a captain. In Rochester, he favors setting up safe haven spots where individuals can come forth to be honest but also protected because “the streets know.”

While the ultimate goal is to produce a living, adjustable community engagement model, Stith still wants to make sure he hears from enough involved people, one group being youth.

Durante, who notes she sees many young people in her line of work, says more effort needs to be made for them. She is hopeful about a new youth police initiative, which is set to begin this year and will include her office, the RPD, other public safety agencies and youth.

“We’ll be talking together to try to talk about these problems in real life,” Durante says.

“I need to speak to more young people. We don’t speak to young people enough,” Stith agrees. “That’s why, at the beginning of 2023, we’re going to be really focusing on schools and how these kids see the world.”

A co-produced plan

While Stith is still in the listening-and-learning phase of his tour, the next steps are not far away. In March, he expects to give a detailed progress report on his community engagement model and continued community meetings, some maybe in local barbershops or beauty salons. He predicts that with real effort by him, the RPD, and the community, rates of violent crime can drop. 

Those involved with improving conditions in the city are hoping for the best, but with fingers crossed.

“I’m really pleased with the direction we’re going in and hope we can continue it,” says Harris. “Speaking as someone who’s been helping for a long time, we start a lot of things but rarely finish them. A lot of things fizzle out and there is no policy change, no restructuring, it’s just that we met once.”

“They’re tired, they’re dead tired. But give me an opportunity to put some things out there. It’s not what Keith’s doing, it’s not a singular process, it’s a co-production,” Stith says, affirming that the re-evaluation is happening on the inside too.

Stith hopes to have most of the community on board with his presence, approach, and vision for community engagement. 

“My attitude is, and always has been, the community is going to determine my success,” Stith says. “Being on a listening tour and hearing the love people speak about this city with, that’s the thing that motivates me to work even harder.”

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.

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