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Perspectives on Rochester’s homicide spike

Max Schulte/WXXI News

As of Friday, there are thirty homicides in the city of Rochester. That’s well ahead of last year’s pace and nearly as many as in 2019. Go back a little further and Rochester police data says the city has already surpassed the totals in 2017 and 2018 with half a year to go. 

The most recent homicide was in broad daylight in the Corn Hill Neighborhood. A mother was shot in front of her children, both under 8. 

"You should be worried about where your Teddy Bear is,” said Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott speaking to the media about the incident. “Not dodging bullets and watching your mom die right in front of you."

“This is nothing I’ve seen,” she continued. “I’m not just talking about Rochester, I mean the whole country.”

Irshad Altheimer, director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives (CPSI) at Rochester Institute of Technology, researches violence in urban environments. Altiheimer said it's too soon to tie the sharp rise to any one cause. But he said the stress caused by the blend of the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicts in government and in the streets over policing likely plays a role.

“It drastically reordered society in a way that we haven’t seen in a century,” said Altheimer. “And oftentimes, when you have these types of reorderings, there are consequences. And sometimes it takes us, you know, time to understand those consequences.”

Altheimer said there’s a long history of research into why crime increases. When faith in policing, governments, and other institutions falter, he says social controls break down, and crime generally goes up.

“You could argue that traditional institutions in Rochester, whether it's a school district, or you know, how institutions, hospitals, even religious institutions, have been disconnected from the young guys on the corner,” said Altheimer. “I think that the people who are most marginalized and most disconnected from these institutions are the most problematic in terms of being able to choose to connect with in terms of formal or informal social control.”

Schools, nonprofits, and churches have had to alter their services dramatically since the pandemic began.  Rev. James Simmons of Baber AME Church is concerned that it could play a role in the crime rise. 

“Churches, at least in black communities, have often been the psychological, and mental health services. There are often the arms (of the church) with youth programs as well. We are in a COVID season, you know, have more distress at home without some outlet for that without some relief for where now kids go as well,” said Simmons. 

Rochester police stats say the victims and those arrested for those crimes are overwhelmingly black.

Baber’s non-profit arm, Rise Up Rochester, is one of a handful of organizations in the area that supports crime victims and their families. He said they’re also offering counseling and mediation in disputes before they get out of control. He said these mediators come in all stripes.

“Oftentimes the persons are persons who once have been in streets themselves, who know the mindset, who know what's going on, and have reformed their life or now want to make a difference in the community,” said Simmons. “Those are credible messengers that we try to have in place that can help relate those involved with violence in the streets.”

Rudy Rivera, leader of the Father Tracy Advocacy Center on North Clinton Avenue, agrees about the disconnect between institutions and people on the streets but said COVID is a small part of the problem.

“COVID may have exposed the extremes of the mess we got, but this has been a long time coming and we all know it,” said Rivera. “It was going on pre COVID. And unfortunately, unless we change course, it'll go on post-COVID.”

Rivera has been outspoken about violent crime in the North Clinton Avenue neighborhood. He said the source of much of it comes from deep rooted problems like weaker families, fewer jobs and unchecked drug sales. 

He said community leaders, especially politicians, rarely focus on dealing with the root causes of violence. 

“The reason why things seem to keep recurring as far as I'm concerned, is because we do not stay on top of it, and only react to it. And that in and of itself is part of our problem. That, you know, we're great at reacting. But we don't seem to want to be proactive, which is to acknowledge that we have to face the truth of what's happening to us,” said Rivera.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.