The first six months of 2011 — roughly the first of Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard’s tenure as chief — were unusually nonviolent compared to other years.
Sheppard announced to City Council last month that shooting victims are down 40 percent compared to the first six months of a typical year. There have been 14 homicides, while there usually are about 20 by this time.
And we are on pace for a year similar to 2009 when there were 13 homicides by early July and Rochester ended the year with 28 homicides, the second lowest number of killings since 1985.
Sheppard has been wary of attributing the drop to any single factor.
To be sure, the wet, cold spring played a role — “Rain, rain, rain, let it come, I like snow,” Sheppard half-joked last month.
But he, like others in the community dedicated to curbing violence, sees something else happening, too.
Sheppard said the main focus of his first few months has been to engage his officers in the communities they are patrolling to create bonds between the officers and residents.
He has instructed rank-and-file cops — not just supervisors — to attend monthly citizen meetings to hear complaints and issues for themselves. He has held “Chief on the Street” meetings across the city during which people can have his undivided attention for five minutes at a time.
And he thinks he has proof the community is responding.
“Most of our arrests are the result of somebody saying, ‘This is what I saw. This is the car they got into. This is what I know in terms of that crime,’” he said.
“The bottom line is we can’t do it alone. We’ve known that, we’ve preached that. The reason this stuff doesn’t happen out in the ‘burbs is because people know, you do something out in the ‘burbs and somebody is going to tell.
“People think there is some magic to making arrests and solving crimes. There is no magic,” he said. “The magic is in the people.”
Community steps up
Coming off a few years when the clearance rate for homicides was at a historically low 30 percent to 40 percent, at least eight of this year’s 14 homicides have been solved, in large part because of help from the community, Sheppard said. While announcing the murder arrest of Jyquale Thomas in January, Sheppard said a deeper level of community involvement helped investigators solve the first four killings of the year.
n the case of Thomas, who is the suspected gunman in the fatal shooting and robbery of Broderick Howard, Sheppard said several witnesses came forward to identify Thomas and his codefendant, Carlton E. Dixon, who was charged with criminal facilitation for his role in robbing Howard.
Thomas is accused of shooting Howard in the forehead with a sawed-off shotgun. Dixon is accused of driving Thomas to and from the scene.
More recently, Sheppard credited citizen cooperation with the June 2 arrest of an Irondequoit man believed to have committed a string of robberies in the North Winton Road area.
Sheppard said investigators believe Daniel Bovee, 36, robbed a CVS Pharmacy on North Winton Road and committed a number of other robberies of businesses.
“When that happened we had dozens of phone calls, people telling us ‘I know who that was, I know who that was. It was Bovee,’” Sheppard said.
And more recently was the arrest of Tomias Shaw, 22, of Velox Street, charged with first-degree assault and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.
Shaw was arrested last month in part due to help from witnesses at the scene of the crime, which occurred about 3 a.m. June 5 on Monroe Avenue.
He is accused of using a black 9mm handgun to fire five shots at a group of men with whom his friends had been fighting — three times hitting Robert Forbes.
Shaw pleaded not guilty at his arraignment last month and his bail was set at $50,000. He is still in jail and his case has gone to a grand jury.
Forbes, 25, is the brother of 2007 homicide victim, Christopher Jones, then 16, and 2008 shooting victim, Mace Forbes, 27, and the son of Sirena Cotton, who is planning a peace festival called Roc the Peace, scheduled for later this month.
Sheppard credits that type of attitude toward standing up to crime — and a renewed focus on violence intervention — with loosening the grip of the deeply entrenched “no-snitch” culture in Rochester.
“We’ve got to let people know that that type of retaliation, in terms of people telling us something about a crime and someone coming back on them, is very rare,” Sheppard said.
“And we’ve got to follow up and let people know that we will protect them.”
The drop in violence likely also stems from a renewed emphasis on quick intervention, and the city’s Operation SNUG-Rochester program, which went fully online at the end of last year.
SNUG — “guns” spelled backward — replicates CeaseFire Chicago, a program credited with reducing shootings and killings by nearly 75 percent in many parts of Chicago, and reducing retaliatory murders by 100 percent in many neighborhoods there.
Six high-intensity intervention case workers, paid for by a $500,000 grant from New York state, target gun violence in the northeast and northwest neighborhoods with the most persistent problems of violence.
In some of the neighborhoods targeted by SNUG, violent altercations were at a 10-year low, said Victor Saunders, director of the city’s violence prevention and intervention team, Pathways to Peace, who also oversees SNUG.
“The efforts of law enforcement, along with relying very heavily on us for intervention and prevention to deal with a lot of these disputes and bring them to a peaceful resolution instead of just going in and arresting everyone, has helped tremendously, has shown a marked success,” Saunders said.
Like Sheppard, Saunders said he senses a change in the community’s willingness to help solve crimes.
So far this year, three guns have been turned in to Pathways, and another has been turned in to SNUG.
Gun collection is not an aspect of either program and most years one or two guns at the most might be turned in.
Despite the drop in violence, City Council is proposing to cut one of Saunders’ four full-time Pathways youth intervention specialists and two part-time specialists. Council has occasionally criticized the group because it is difficult to quantify their success.
Sheppard, though, praised Pathways’ efforts, and Councilor Adam McFadden said it would be a mistake to cut Pathways staff considering its success across the city.
“I’m pushing to keep them whole,” McFadden said of Pathways. “There’s merit to having a group like Pathways to deal with the population of young people who are fighting in our communities at places like the Liberty Pole and the beach.”
In addition to the proposed cut to Pathways, the state money that supports SNUG-Rochester was a one-time grant and likely would not be reallocated to Rochester again.
Whether or not his budget is cut, Saunders said his group will continue in its mission.
“We are not going to let it stop us from the doing the work we do in this community,” Saunders said.
His goal of violence reduction is both professional and personal, as several of Saunders’ friends and family members have been victims of street-level, conflict-generated violence.
That includes three of his nephews: Christopher Jones, and Mace and Robert Forbes.