Young people have become central players in recent increased criminal activity in Rochester, city leaders say. During the first half of 2023, they have been connected to the two most pressing public safety issues: gun violence and motor vehicle thefts.
“Over the last several months, our community has been presented with new and challenging threats to public safety. The increase in car thefts and carjackings, smash and grabs, illegal gun violence, just to name a few,” said Richard Tantalo, Monroe County’s director of public safety, at a city public safety briefing this week. “One of the most concerning aspects of this rise in crime is that it is most often being committed by teens and juveniles. Young people who have their entire lives ahead of them.”
“It is important for us to talk about the young people not on TikTok, stealing cars. Because the vast majority of them are not,” Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said at the briefing. “But there is a small portion of them who are involved (in criminal activity) and wreaking havoc, and we have to make sure that they stop.”
Even if it is a small portion of the area’s youth population, Police Chief David Smith, who was also present at the public safety briefing, says there have been increased numbers of arrests among young people, counter to nationwide trends over the last three decades. So far this year in Rochester, 114 juveniles have been arrested in connection to car thefts, sent to either city or family court, compared with the 137 adult arrests for crimes in the same category.
During the first half of 2023, violent crimes, including homicides, have fallen slightly, but still remain high compared to historical data. Rates of property crime, on the other hand, have exploded due to record high motor vehicle thefts.
In addition to the “the Kia Challenge” trend proliferated by social media, which encourages viewers to steal cars, Evans and others have linked youth to the heightened levels of violence in the city. House parties and gatherings at public areas such as parks after hours are sites where violence has erupted, the mayor says.
Through programs such as Pathways to Peace and new engagement strategies including the recently launched “Choose Wisdom” campaign and the Juvenile Enhanced Diversion Stabilization program, the city is trying to counteract these trends. Whether they can make a difference remains to be seen.
“We want (youth) to know help is available,” said Victor Saunders, the city’s adviser on violence prevention.
Almost a full year after declaring a gun violence state of emergency, Evans believes his efforts are working to stem a tide of violence, although more work is needed.
“As it relates to the violence numbers, I would say I am gratified, but not satisfied,” Evans said.
“It’s a reason I am going to extend the gun violence emergency again in a couple of days,” he continued. “Why am I doing that? Because it is working.”
City officials say the state of emergency, which Evans personally reviews at least every month, allows for faster reaction as it grants powers such as blocking off streets, enacting curfews and limiting group gatherings.
“If it’s misconstrued, it can be picked up like, ‘Oh, they’re trying to shut down all the parties.’ No we’re not trying to do that,” Evans said. “We want people to party until the cows come home because they’re having a good time, not because they’re in trouble. We’re talking about people in places they’re not supposed to be after hours.
“That spate of shootings we had in that one day, almost all of those shootings were related to large gatherings that were taking place in spots that they weren’t supposed to afterhours. We can’t have that,” he added. “What happens is tempers start flaring and people start shooting.”
The mayor pointed to several of the recent July 4 shootings as examples of illegal gatherings. For example, when police responded to a disturbance at Martin Luther King Park around midnight, a 19-year old was found shot. The park closes at 8:50 p.m.
Smith says the Rochester Police Department is making additional efforts to monitor both park closings and house parties as a function of the Violence Prevention unit.
‘“The reason we renew it, among others, is the very existence of the state of emergency gives a lot of clubs and establishments pause when they question whether they should go out on a limb and do something because they know we can move at the speed of light,” said Linda Kingsley, corporation counsel for the city of Rochester.
“As opposed to, on a Saturday night at 2 a.m to call the mayor, ask him to declare a state of emergency, get him to sign it, then we get it to the chief,” she continued. “We don’t want to have those restrictions.”
In the 12 months since the gun violence state of emergency took effect, there have been 256 nonfatal shootings and 52 firearm homicides. Those figures represent a decrease from 322 nonfatal shootings (-20 percent) and 60 firearm homicides (-13 percent) in the previous 12-month period.
The overall decrease in shootings and homicides primarily was a result of less violence during colder months. Through the fourth quarter of 2022 and first quarter of 2023, (October 2022 through March 2023), the 81 shootings and 16 firearm homicides represented a decrease of 37 percent and 46 percent, respectively, compared to the year before.
Warmer months, on the other hand, saw more modest quarterly decreases in gun violence since the state of emergency took effect. The 175 shootings and 36 homicides in the third quarter of 2022 and second quarter of 2023 represented a decrease of 9 percent for shootings but an increase of 20 percent for firearm homicides.
While 2023, to date, has had fewer shootings than last year at this same time, it still remains very close to 2020 levels, which was considered a “violent year.” Seventy-eight shootings in the second quarter of 2023 is the third highest on record in that span of months, behind only the record years 2022 and 2021.
Homicides and, more broadly, all violent crime, this year have primarily occurred within the “crescent” area of the city, covering the Genesee, Lake and Clinton police patrol sections.
Deputy Chief Mark Mura, who spoke at a recent meeting of the Roc Against Gun Violence Coalition, says that factors outside the purview of law enforcement are keeping gun violence at a high level.
“I know that we’re addressing it by going after the violent offenders in the city of Rochester,” Mura said. “When we know someone has guns, we identify them, we go after them, we arrest them and we take those guns off the street.”
In 2023, RPD says it has removed over 400 illegal guns from the community with 281 people charged with possession of an illegal weapon.
“What happens to them after we arrest them is up to the court system and, quite frankly, Albany and all the laws we have in New York State,” said Mura. “Our arrests are up, our guns taken off the street are up, but that’s all we can do as a police department.”
Chief Deputy Michael Fowler, involved with the newly launched JEDS program, agrees.
“Since the onset of Raise the Age, juvenile crime has seemingly gone unchecked. The lack of consequence has emboldened these children to become involved in trending crimes, putting themselves and our community in danger,” Fowler says.
A study released by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in February paints a different picture of youth violence in New York City, however. According to its research, violent crimes by those in the 17-and-younger” and 18-to-24 age categories fell or remained relatively constant after the Raise the Age legislation became law. (The law, which took effect in 2018, changed the age that a child charged in a criminal case can be prosecuted as an adult to 18. Previously, New York was one of only two states to hold 16 and 17 year olds criminally responsible.)
For all the focus on young people and gun violence, the age distribution both for recent victims and arrestees has not changed much when compared to historical trends.
Last year, there were eight victims between ages 5 and 14 for both nonfatal shootings and firearm homicides, a number not seen since 2006. However, that made up only 2.3 percent of all victims. The majority of victims were the 178 between ages 25 and 44.
A surge of car thefts
While gun violence in Rochester has mainly followed previous trends, car thefts have bucked all prior history.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Rochester until recently was in the middle of the pack for New York cities, ranked by the rate of car thefts. In 2021, the most recently available year of data, the city had a theft rate of 164 per 100,000 people, second behind Buffalo.
When the statistics are updated, Rochester’s ranking could have changed dramatically. The more than 2,300 motor vehicle thefts recorded halfway through this year already doubled last year’s and 2021’s total incident counts, both of which easily set decade-high records.
The primary location of car thefts has shifted from the North Clinton neighborhood to the southeastern section of the city. Specifically, the police beat located in the Neighborhood of the Arts, from Culver Road to Alexander Street, has seen the most incidents this year.
Hotspot areas include along Park Avenue and by the Strathallan Rochester Hotel & Spa at East Avenue and North Goodman Street. Most thefts occur in evening or late night hours in parking lots or on the street.
Data from NICB in 2021 showed that Ford and Chevrolet trucks were the most stolen vehicles that year. Updated numbers for 2022 and 2023 will likely shift those models to Kia and Hyundai, attributed mostly to a national TikTok trend.
“The Kia Challenge” first started gaining popularity on the social media site in late 2021 with videos accruing over millions of views. They demonstrated how to hotwire specific Kia and Hyundai models that were manufactured without immobilizers, anti-theft devices that prevent cars from being started without the smart key present.
“You wouldn’t sit on a chair with three legs. But Kia and Hyundai decided, in their infinite wisdom, to manufacture cars between 2011 and 2021 without immobilizers,” said Evans. The city launched a lawsuit against the two car manufacturers earlier this year.
That lawsuit is unrelated to a recent $200 million settlement Hyundai and Kia reached with consumers who had their cars stolen. Kingsley says the companies have given no indication they wish to settle with Rochester and other cities that have filed lawsuits.
“Obviously, this one is going to be very expensive for them,” she said. “One of the things we’re seeking to recover is all of our overtime police costs which we have put into this and which are obviously exorbitant.”
Law enforcement officials, including Smith and Mura, mention staffing gaps as part of the problem facing police and leading to the sharp increase in the number of thefts.
Beyond the theft or damage to property, Evans says he is particularly frustrated at a perceived lack of consideration for how life-threatening lack of a vehicle can be for individuals.
“This trend is maddening,” Evans said. “This is becoming a life-and-death situation. What do I mean by that? When you have individuals who have their car stolen and they can’t make it to a dialysis appointment because their car is not there, that’s a problem.”
The mayor says he has heard of other incidents from residents, including parents unable to pick up their children from school, people injured in collisions with stolen cars, and homes that have been damaged due to stolen car crashes.
Helping the youth
Still, the mayor continues to have faith in young people.
“I had a young person the other day ask me, ‘Mayor, you spend so much time talking about the problem kids. What about the kids who are doing the right thing?’ So let me be clear, the vast majority of our young people we have here in the city of Rochester are doing the right thing,” Evans said.
“Although these kids who are stealing cars get a lot of press, 90 percent or higher of our children are doing a phenomenal job,” added Saunders. “They are involved in activities, they are employed, they are doing great things. We want to give them opportunities and options to let them explore; for them to have an even better time (in) the summer before school starts.”
Even among youth who have committed crimes, there are positive early indicators. According to Tantalo, the JEDS program, which is intended to prevent repeat juvenile crime, has served 59 youth in its six months of operation. Of those, only three individuals have reoffended.
Another area of encouragement, Evans says, is efforts such as the Summer Youth Employment Program and the Summer of Opportunity Program. Those programs are based at R-centers, city parks, the Peace Collective, and city libraries.
In addition, he points to expanded hours and mental health counselors at R-centers, community sports programs, the “R-night out” program and raised pay for lifeguards.
RPD is also planning for greater focus on youth outreach. It recently secured a grant for a gaming truck designed to let teens play video games.
“The biggest violence prevention strategy is youth employment and youth engagement,” Evans said.
“When it comes to the reason why they are stealing cars, what I’ve been getting back from individuals who have sat down and spent time with these teenagers: boredom,” agreed Saunders.
The Office of Violence Prevention has its own programs, including Peace BBQs, the “Rep the Roc” basketball tournament, and the new “Choose Wisdom” outreach campaign. The campaign is centered around getting youth connected to resources as quickly and conveniently as possible through QR codes, advertisements and a video created by local filmmaker Shabaka Mu Ausar.
“They’ll be able to see people that they know. People they’ve had contact with in the streets or at the barbershop,” Saunders said about the video during the most recent Roc Against Gun Violence Coalition meeting. “It’s giving an alternative to a situation that could escalate to the point where someone could be hurt or injured.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].