On July 3, 2023, a total of 33 motor vehicle thefts were reported in the city of Rochester–its highest daily count ever.
The thefts, which started with three in the early hours at Green Knolls Drive, near Monroe Community Hospital, and included seven downtown from Goodman Street to the Genesee River, spread throughout the day. Other car-related crimes also surged that day, including a smash-and-grab spree of nearly 20 cars in the Werner Park neighborhood in the southeast.
A week later, at a city public safety briefing that addressed the rash of car thefts, Mayor Malik Evans called the trend “maddening” and potentially “a life-and-death situation.”
The mayor had reason to be concerned; the early summer spike in thefts was part of a wave that continued throughout the year. Crime incident reports from the Rochester Police Department show that motor vehicle thefts, which already were rising over the last three years, exploded to new heights in 2023.
The dramatic increase in motor vehicle thefts overshadowed another, perhaps bigger story: declines in other crime categories, including a big drop in homicides, which had jumped to record levels during the COVID pandemic and in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester.
The number of Rochester homicides last year fell by nearly one-third, to 50 from 74 in 2022 and down from 72 in 2021. Robberies declined 15 percent. Overall, violent crime was down slightly, due to an 11 percent increase in aggravated assault cases. Compared with 2020, when violent crime peaked, 2023’s tally was 10 percent lower.
Violent crime continues to be concentrated in the Crescent neighborhoods of the city, which contain the highest rates of poverty as well. In particular, North Goodman and Clinton, central Genesee and Lake were hot spots.
The story in Rochester reflects trends seen in most cities across the country including Buffalo and larger urban centers like Detroit and Philadelphia. Nationwide, the decline in homicides last year may be one of the largest on record. Non-fatal shootings also have fallen sharply, as they have here—down 15 percent in Rochester last year and 32 percent compared with the peak in 2021.
In fact, eight of nine violent- and property-crime categories tracked by the FBI were down nationwide year over year through the end of the third quarter. The lone exception: motor vehicle theft.
A mixed picture
Trends that emerged in Rochester at the midyear mark carried through to the end of the year.
If not for the big increase in motor vehicle thefts, reports of property crime would be continuing a downward trend seen over the last decade. After a bounce in larceny and burglary incidents in 2022, those two categories decreased slightly to levels more in line with five years ago.
In June 2023, the city launched the “Report It” phone app to make it easier for citizens to send tips on non-emergency anonymous criminal activity.
“From news delivery (and) travel planning to buying coffee, smartphone apps are increasingly becoming the preferred means of communication sharing in our society,” Evans said at an event for the app’s launch. “So, this application allows us to engage our customers on their terms to gain the information we need to reduce crime and keep our community safe.”
Property crime was concentrated in the southeast of the city. Patrol car 245, which covers the East End, Park Avenue, and Neighborhood of the Arts areas, saw the most with 808 reports; patrol car 219, covering the eastern part of central city, recorded the second most with 614.
RPD clearance rates, or cases closed due to arrests, followed a trend of improvement in relation to violent crimes, especially homicides. In the last three years, even with elevated homicide levels, the department had a closure rate of over 60 percent, with the remaining cases “in the field,” which includes advised and applied arrest warrants.
Clearance rates for property crime were much lower, due in large part to the number of motor vehicle thefts. Among the car-theft cases, only 4 percent have been closed as of this article. This is low for an already low clearance rate category (the best performance by the RPD was 20 percent clearance in 2011).
Surge in motor vehicle thefts
In 2023, more than 3,800 motor vehicle thefts were reported in the city. That number is nearly three times the total in 2022, which itself was a record year.
While July 3 was the highest daily record for motor vehicle thefts, the monthly record was set in June with 502. From June 12 to June 15, there were at least 20 reported thefts; June 13, with 31 thefts, trailed only July 3.
Other car-related crimes also rose in 2023. The 220 incidents of auto stripping and 105 of theft of personal items from a car represent a 300 percent increase compared with the previous year in both categories.
Locations that saw the most motor vehicle thefts during the year were along East and University avenues, East Main and Alexander streets, and Monroe and Lake avenues. Typical spots for thefts included parking lots and garages, apartment complexes, and areas with late-night activities such as the East End or center city.
Evans and other public officials have noted that this is a phenomenon driven by youth crime. The “Kia Challenge Trend” has been blamed as a contributing factor since it proliferated through social media apps like Tik Tok in 2021. Videos outlining how to steal vehicles–primarily models made by Kia or Hyundai, without anti-theft immobilizer technology–have received millions of views.
“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 filed a lawsuit against the two car manufacturers.
In November, Kia held upgrade clinics across the country for consumers to get the latest anti-theft software. Even then, the number of cities as part of the litigation has continued to grow, with Syracuse joining most recently.
RPD data supports the theory that youth crime has driven the surge in thefts. Juveniles have averaged about 5 percent of total arrests from 2011 to 2022. In 2023, that rate doubled to 10 percent.
In fact, youths accounted for a staggering one-third of all arrests for motor vehicle thefts in 2023.
“It is important for us to talk about the young people not on TikTok, stealing cars. Because the vast majority of them are not,” Evans said. “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.”
In an attempt to reverse this trend, the mayor has launched a number of youth-oriented initiatives. He has pointed to the Summer Youth Employment Program and the Summer of Opportunity Program as successful efforts that need to be built upon.
In addition, the Office of Violence Protection launched the “Choose Wisdom” campaign last year, with a focus on connecting youth to resources as quickly and conveniently as possible through QR codes, advertisements and a video created by local filmmaker Shabaka Mu Ausar.
At the county level, the Juvenile Enhanced Diversion Stabilization program also launched in summer 2023. The program uses resources from the Monroe County Probation Department to speed up the process so that an arrest or court appearance is not followed by periods of inactivity.
“One thing is clear, there has to be accountability and consequences for these unlawful and harmful actions. There has to be a disruption in criminal activity committed by our young residents,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. “Our Probation Department has developed a workaround to close the gaps in the state legal system and has created a program to break up the cycle of criminal activity by juveniles and teens.”
As of July, there have been only five repeat offenders following 90 intakes completed under JEDS so far.
As part of his legislative priorities for 2024, state Sen. Jeremy Cooney announced he would push for the “Car Theft Prevention Act.” The bill would add felony offenses to motor vehicle thefts, which would allow for bail consideration by local judges. How this would affect juvenile offenders is unclear.
Decline in shootings
Fatal and non-fatal shooting incidents in 2023 remained higher than average compared to the last two decades, at 43 and 246, respectively. However, those numbers represent a welcome decline from the record highs set in the last two years.
“I would say I am gratified, but not satisfied,” Evans said about the violence numbers.
The mayor declared a gun violence state of emergency in July 2022, which he has extended multiple times, most recently in December 2023. City officials say the state of emergency allows for faster reaction times as it grants powers such as blocking off streets, enacting curfews and limiting group gatherings.
Similarly, the ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition, chaired by Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, released an action plan in October that includes short-, mid-, and long-range goals addressing topics such as education, advocacy, eradication and resources.
“With this plan, I’m ensuring that this work continues long after I’ve left my seat on the City Council dais,” Lightfoot said upon announcing the recommendations.
The coalition also partnered with anti-violence organization Brady for a gun trace report, which attempted to track down the dealers of firearms used in crimes. Armed with this knowledge, Lightfoot said, the city can act to find and shut down bad suppliers.
Research by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives also found that the Homicide Response Team, started in 2020, has been a significant actor in post-homicide services. Following a homicide, the team visits a victim’s family to assess for safety; emergent needs such as food, transportation or shelter; and making connections to other trauma-related services.
Of the cases eligible for HRT response from May 2021 through 2022, 72 percent were attended to by at least one member of the team. Processing errors or a request for a no-show from RPD were reasons for a non-attended family. The average time spent at a location was over two hours.
The report notes the success of HRT in its short existence, but also identifies that its staff is small for an organization giving a 24/7 service.
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].