Rochester part of national surge in shootings, homicides in communities upended during pandemic

Brian Sharp Tiffany Cusaac-Smith
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

In daily headlines the surge in gun violence across the state and nation is being told in the numbers.

One dead, eight wounded in a six-hour stretch in New York City. A dozen shot the next night in the same period. Three shot, including a 7-year-old, in Syracuse. Three dead, four injured after two shootings in Buffalo.

It's not just Rochester — which saw 168 shootings through the first half of the year, leaving 180 injured and 24 dead.

It's not just New York.

"This is a national increase in violence in most American cities, which means that there is something going on," said Irshad Altheimer, director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Markers were placed near spent bullet casings on Hudson Avenue after a June 28, 2021 shooting that injured three and killed one.

The pandemic strained and upended communities in ways we are just beginning to understand, Altheimer said.

Social unrest fueled by the in-custody deaths of George Floyd, Daniel Prude and others further led people to question their confidence in law enforcement, making them less likely to turn to police when problems arise. Bail reform is often cited, but the spike in violence is shared across cities and states regardless of when or if changes were made.

And there are more guns. From Chicago to Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona, police departments reported a rise in guns seized or gun-related arrests even as police traffic stops and overall arrests plummeted during the pandemic. Weapons-related offenses in Rochester were up 24% over the past year, while total crime rose by less than 3%.

"We are the in the middle of the crisis, and we are just trying to understand," Altheimer said. "What we know now is if Rochester continues on this rate, we may have a level of homicides and shootings we haven’t seen since the early- to mid-'90s."

Rochester recorded more than 60 homicides in multiple years during the early part of that decade. 

'Most kids would be scared'

Homicides are up 18% year-over-year in major U.S. cities. This, after 2020 brought the largest single-year increase ever recorded, according to the national data site AH Datalytics.

"Eighty percent of cities saw an increase in murder last year,"  said Jeff Asher, who co-founded AH Datalytics two years ago, and is a former public safety analyst for the city of New Orleans. Nearly 70% are seeing a continued uptick in 2021.

The surge in violence is not universal across crime type. In New York state, rape, robbery, larceny, are all down, with statewide totals last year at their lowest since at least 2015, records show.

But it's the shootings, deadly or not, that tear at the fabric of a community. And across New York state shootings involving injuries are up more than 40%, based on data collected by the Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) initiative. 

GIVE is a state initiative that aims to reduce shootings and “save lives in communities with high rates of violent and firearm-related crime.” Among the participating police departments are Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, Utica and Yonkers.

Most of Rochester's shootings take place in a section of the city known as the crescent — neighborhoods with concentrated poverty encircling downtown from the southwest to the northeast. A gunshot detection system known as ShotSpotter blankets mainly that section of the city.

In May alone, it detected almost 350 instances of gunfire, according to police, equating to shots being fired every 2 hours and 10 minutes of every day.

That is just a portion of the city, and only instances of suspected gunfire, not the number of shots fired. A fuller, but still incomplete, accounting of the violence comes from the number of shell casings Rochester police have recovered citywide: 498 in April, 618 in May, 838 in June.

"We really need to get a grip on things," said Assemblyman Demond Meeks, D-Rochester, who was returning home around dusk on a Monday last month when he saw police had taped off a section of Melrose and Wellington in the 19th Ward.

A short time earlier, two cars had sped through the neighborhood, exchanging gunfire. More than a dozen shell casings lay on the road. At least one resident's living room window was shot out. Neighbors went door to door, checking on one another.

What concerns him is not just the violence but how all the gunfire is impacting the most vulnerable.

A woman was fatally shot in her car on Garden Street in Rochester around 2:15 p.m. on June 18, 2021. Two of her children ages 3 years and 8 years old were in the car and were physically unharmed.  Rochester police continued their investigation into the early evening.  Area residents watch the police investigation at their apartment complex.

Four of the city's shootings this year have been within a block of George Mather Forbes elementary school on Dr. Samuel McCree Way. A teacher at the school told Meeks the most disturbing thing about one daytime shooting was the children's reaction to it. 

More:'We just hope we don't get a call.' Rochester schools boost efforts to combat gun violence

"Most kids would be scared," Meeks said. "That didn't happen. ... I don't want our children to be desensitized to violence to the point of, 'Oh, they're just shooting.'"

In another daytime shooting near the school last month, two people were injured. One died. The other was arrested days later for a homicide he allegedly committed the week before. 

'You are seeing a free-for-all'

The surge in most cities began in the June-July time frame last year, said Asher, the data analyst. So it would reason that there could be a leveling off as the year-over-year comparisons until now have been of post-surge months to pre-surge months. 

"We have no idea what's going to happen," Asher said. "It's, I think, a very difficult situation because it has gotten so bad."

While many of the COVID restrictions have lifted, and the unrest has turned to action, one variable of the past year remains: The guns.

"It seems like people went out and bought a lot of guns at the start of the pandemic," Asher said. "There is evidence that people were carrying, and evidence that people were buying.

"And there was a big increase in gun violence."

New York saw 63,558 new pistol permits issued statewide last year, according to the state police. That's up from 24,941 the year before.

In Monroe County, applications spiked midway through 2020, after an initial decline (notably permit applications tend to track with whether a Democrat or Republican is, or is expected to be, in the White House). That increase has continued through the first half of 2021, with the 2,042 applications exceeding annual totals for six of the previous 10 years.

Those are legal guns, with the rush of new owners thought to be fueled by the unease of the pandemic, and now possibly the violence. But as Altheimer sees it, with an increase in gun availability, some get stolen, sold, and "a proportion of those guns get into the wrong hands and are used for crime."

Collectively, cities in the GIVE program saw a 50% rise in shootings involving injury last year, compared to the five-year average, posting the highest numbers for any single year in the past decade, state data show.

Numbers varied by municipality then, and now. Syracuse saw fewer shootings through May, the most recent GIVE data available. But city records show numbers climbing in June. Shootings were up 20% in Utica; 90% in Rochester.

"Basically what you are seeing is a free for all," said Patrick Phelan, retired Greece police chief and current executive director of the New York state Association of Chiefs of Police. 

New York City has made a record number of gun arrests this year, Phelan said: "That hasn't put any dent in the shootings or gun violence because the people who are getting arrested are being immediately released."

As shooting spiked across the five boroughs last year, New York Post analysis found just one related arrest of someone released under the statewide bail reform law.

Other cities' experiences

Before the pandemic, Utica police Sgt. Michael Curley said, crime was lower, and the department had made inroads with the community.  

Now, he said, crime is up in Oneida County community of 60,000 — but not to the levels seen last year, when gunfire injured 42 and killed nine. That was the worst year since at least 2011, when those numbers were 11 and two, respectively.  

Utica police at the scene of a Sept. 10, 2020, shooting.

The pandemic stifled much of the department’s outreach work, Curley said. The street outreach and the gun violence interrupter program could not make the same personal interactions, he said. And the unrest that swept the nation after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police "kind of highlighted some of the deficiencies that the (Utica) department still had in maintaining good community relations,” he said.

The city started a violence prevention team in January, using evidence-based strategies to address crime. The department also works with the Mohawk Valley Crime Analysis Center, which provides them with up-to-date data and resources about gun violence trends. Curley hopes that the uptick in crime is more of a blip than a new normal.  

Some 230 miles south in Yonkers, Westchester County, there were 26 people shot last year — the most since 28 were injured by gunfire in 2017, data show. The six homicides last year were the most since at least 2011, when five people were shot and killed. 

Yonkers firefighters hose down a crime scene where four people were shot on Elm Street on June 10, 2021.

Like Rochester, homicide numbers here yet to hit the highs in the 1990’s. Yonkers was in the upper teens many of those years. Utica peeked at 14.

Yonkers, with its population of 200,000 located just outside of New York City, has seen a sustained level of violence this year. The state data only goes through May. Not included is a June drive-by shooting that injured four. Or the shooting of a Delaware man in the city in June.  

Last month's shooting numbers are still within the five-year average, said city spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin. Police are deploying plainclothes crime teams as part of their efforts to combat the violence.

Gilmartin put the city's arrest rate for shootings in 2020 at 58%.  

'The village is gone'

Around the country, the arrest rate for gun violence is "dismally low," Altheimer said, putting it somewhere around 20%. Now consider that 700 people have been shot over 20 years within a one-mile radius of Jefferson and Bartlett southwest of downtown Rochester.

"When you think about that fact: The guys (who did the shooting) haven’t been arrested, and are walking around the neighborhood. How does that drive decisions about carrying a weapon?" he asked.

"When violence becomes a structure of life in a community, then people have to make decisions that they believe will put them in the best position to be safe. We have to be considerate of that."

A woman was fatally shot in her car on Garden Street in Rochester around 2:15 p.m. on June 18, 2021. Two of her children ages 3 years and 8 years old were in the car and were physically unharmed. Noone has yet been arrested in relation to the case.

As cities wrestle with how to stop the violence; as federal resources are marshaled for "strike forces" to interrupt the trafficking of illegal guns, Altheimer said the focus should be on targeting highly-active offenders, hot spots and active disputes without alienating those who live this communities.

"We’ve got to resist turning neighborhoods into minimum security prisons," he said.

What's worked before, Phelan said, is proactive policing — stopping and questioning people, making people think twice about carrying and getting caught with an illegal firearm. That isn't happening now, which he attributed to understaffing, with retirements and vacancies blamed on the protests and the "defund" movement that have strained and demoralized officers.

"It's created a situation where police officers that are working are probably not likely to go out and do proactive police work," Phelan said, as they worry what might happen if something goes wrong.

Donell Keitt-McCall was a child, growing up in Yonkers in the 90s.

This moment feels different, the community activist said. Crimes are being perpetrated by a smaller group of people. He echoes others, like Meeks, saying that addressing the violence requires looking at root causes. He points to education, and early intervention.

He said there needs to be more outreach to high-risk children and those who aren’t in that category but might slip into it without the right guidance. To have a safe community, he said, it takes vigilance by all — teachers, principals, neighbors, parents, and officials — to ensure the reduction and for children to have an opportunity.  

“They are a part of the village," he said, "and the village is gone. Everybody is minding their business."  

Contact reporter Brian Sharp at bdsharp@gannett.com or at 585-258-2275. Follow him on Twitter @sharproc. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.