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Rochester mayor folds violence prevention programs into his office

Victor Saunders, special adviser to Mayor Malik Evans, speaks to the media on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.
Victor Saunders, special adviser to Mayor Malik Evans, speaks to the media on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

In a move meant to curb violence, Mayor Malik Evans has placed the city’s violence prevention programs and initiatives under the auspices of his office.

Pathways to Peace, the Peacemaker Fellowship, and the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety will now report to Victor Saunders, the former Pathways to Peace coordinator whom Evans appointed as his special adviser for violence prevention programs, the mayor said during a news conference Thursday.

During his campaign, Evans promised to appoint a “gun czar” within his first 100 days in office. Saunders is filling that role, though with a different title.

“This will allow the mayor to be more actively involved in the process,” Evans said. “We wanted to also make sure that, if you have an adviser on violence reduction services, why wouldn’t the violence reduction services be under the mayor’s office?”

Evans noted that the services would now be “centralized,” though before he moved them they were housed within the Department of Recreation and Human Services. In May, former Mayor Lovely Warren announced the creation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a violence prevention initiative modeled after Newark, New Jersey’s Office of Violence Prevention.

The Office of Neighborhood Safety was established by the 2021-22 city budget and has been described as an operation that “consolidates city violence prevention services.”

In August, members of City Council approved the Peacemaker Fellowship and a contract with Richmond, California-based Advance Peace to administer the program, which is a kind of mentoring program for at-risk youths. It operates in tandem with the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

Pathways to Peace, which also previously operated out of the Department of Recreation and Human Services, is a gang intervention and mediation team, as well as one of the city’s oldest violence prevention initiatives.

Evans said placing the organizations under the mayor’s office will make them directly accountable to him. He said there will be regular data collection and reports on the efficacy of the organizations moving forward.

He also emphasized the need for better investment into the programs. The Office of Neighborhood Safety was allocated $476,700 under the current city budget, while Pathways to Peace was allocated $498,600.

“When it’s not working, guess what, I’m going to stand right here and say, ‘We tried, it’s not working, here’s what we’re going to do next,’” Evans said.

Violent crime in Rochester surged in 2021 with 81 murders and 419 shootings, respectively a 59% and 25% increase over the previous year, and a record number of murders for Rochester, according to Rochester Police Department data.

The Jan. 2 fatal shooting of 14-year-old Julius Greer as he walked to the store to buy elbows for goulash that his dad was making marked the city’s first murder of 2022.

Saunders, who formerly taught at School 8, had Greer as a student.

“It definitely let me know that my approach has to be intentional and pointed,” Saunders said.

Despite the issues with violence, Evans was adamant that Rochester is a safe place to visit and live.

“Let’s be clear, the city is a safe place to visit,” Evans said. “We’re always going to have challenges, but we are still a safe city. In any urban environment, you’re going to have crime. The key is that we don’t accept it.”

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.