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New task force targets gun violence in Rochester

James Brown
A makeshift memorial for Genuine Ridgeway, a 31 year old mother of two, killed just steps from the First Church of God on Clarissa Street in June.

A 60-day surge of proactive policing began Wednesday, in reaction to the growth in violent crime in Rochester.

U.S. Attorney for Western New York James Kennedy  announced the Federal Violence Prevention and Elimination Response (VIPER) Task Force to help slow gun violence in the city. Flanked by law enforcement leaders, Kennedy made the announcement just steps from where a mother was shot to death in front of her 3-year-old and 9-year-old children last month

The task force includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; FBI, United States Marshall Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Rochester Police Department, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and the District Attorney’s Office. Kennedy said they’ll review the data and decide whether to continue after the surge. 

The increased law enforcement efforts include targeted patrols, enhanced information sharing, enhanced proactive investigations and prosecution, and a daily review of gun arrests. The review would help law enforcement decide what cases should face federal prosecution.

This year, more than 200 people have been shot and nearly 40 people have been murdered.

“We will carefully analyze recent shootings, regional data, and intelligence information to prioritize our investigative resources toward the worst offenders," said Kennedy. 

Kennedy also said they intend to ramp up efforts to connect the police with the community. He said he wants to change the dynamic among police and the community from an “us versus them,'' to the “police and community vs. violent offenders.”

“It's important to remember that law enforcement cannot solve this problem alone. We need your help,” said Kennedy. “The last 18 months have taught us that effective, proactive policing cannot take place until, and unless, the community supports it. The only way the community will support it is if they are being treated fairly and with respect."

There’s much work left on the community engagement side of the equation, evidenced by some reaction at the news conference. Kennedy was interrupted by a group of nearly two dozen residents including Van Smith, executive director of Recovery Houses of Rochester. They’re concerned about the violence and asked questions like “Where’s the mayor?” and why didn’t they know about the new conference or program ahead of time.

Smith said this approach is all too familiar and reminds him of the 1980s.

“It almost feels like deja vu. Where you had the arrests go up and the problem continues to go unaddressed,” said Smith, who added that he would like to see systemic problems like poverty and joblessness addressed as well. 

A similar task force is expected to be announced in Buffalo later this week.

A statement on social media from local Black Lives Matter organization Free the People Roc was critical of the taskforce:

“Federal law enforcement are using the same strategies that destroyed Black and brown communities, ruined lives, and created the largest prison population in the world. We can't punish our way to safety. Public safety and an end to the violence demands real community investment, violence interruption, and mental health and substance use services. Stop-and-frisk, pretextual stops, and other forms of "proactive" policing openly discriminate against Black men and open the door for more devastating police violence.”

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.