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Community crucial part of halting violence

By: John Fulmer//June 30, 2010

Community crucial part of halting violence

By: John Fulmer//June 30, 2010//

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Nazareth College’s “Stop the Violence” conference held last month and June’s seventh TIPS — Trust, Information, Programs and Services — were attended by a bevy of public safety officers, government and court officials, and members of academia.

Nonprofit and government-affiliated community-action groups also were well represented, and the number of organizations dedicated to making Rochester and Monroe County safer appears to be growing.

TIPS is a law-enforcement-to-citizen interface that takes place on the streets of some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. TIPS events have been well-publicized and some of the others—Project Exile, Rise Up Rochester, Pathways to Peace — also are becoming familiar to area residents, but are they simply media phenomena or effective means to curb crime and violence? Can their successes be measured?

That’s a question Jed Metzger, assistant professor of social work at Nazareth College, is asked frequently. He said recently, the answer isn’t easy.

One problem, he said, is that the news media often fixate on major crime statistics, such as murder rates.

Gauging success

Murders have risen this year in Rochester, but too many variables go into tracking crime statistics, Metzger said. Counting the number of murders as a means of measuring a community’s safety is unreliable, especially as an indicator of long-term safety.

“Rochester is having a bad year, right now,” Metzger said.

He said he prefers to measure the success of community-action efforts by less-empirical data. Metzger said about 20 major community-type groups are involved in halting violence in the city, but that figure itself is a sort of misrepresentation.

Nazareth College’s conference was designed for social workers and in addition to attendance of the police chief, county executive, sheriff and Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Greene, representatives of the county’s Preventive Services Coalition also attended.

The coalition comprises 30 preventive programs, affiliated with 13 parent agencies such as the Berkshire Farm Center, Catholic Family Center, Cayuga Home for Children, Hillside Family of Agencies and the Ibero-American Action League.

So Metzger said he looks at grass-roots community involvement as a way to gauge success, such as the number of block clubs that have formed in the city and the fact that Nazareth’s  conference last month, one in a series, drew about 150 more people than the previous one. Hard data also can be garnered through TIPS canvassing, he said.

TIPS depends on four-person groups — a police officer, firefighter and two volunteers — who walk about 20-square blocks of a neighborhood, selected because of its history or proclivity for crime, vandalism and arson, or sometimes due to the fact that a particularly heinous crime had taken place there.

TIPS was born about two years ago, following the mob beating of Latasha Shaw, who was stabbed to death in broad daylight in front of many witnesses. It took police more than a year to find the two main suspects because residents were afraid to “snitch.”

The groups gather data about quality-of-life issues — something as simple, for instance, as how much they like or feel safe in their neighborhood — while the group tries to gather information on the criminals who tend to operate there.

The latest TIPS canvass, Metzger said, was “pretty interesting.”

“They received one murder tip and a couple that led to arrests,” Metzger said.

Green said he could not comment on the crime information gathered from the last TIPS event, but he did extol the virtues of the program and others like it.

When it was suggested that there always has been some friendly interaction between citizens and law enforcement, through police athletic leagues, for example, Green disagreed. There was a time in the 1960s — especially after the 1964 riots — when decent community-and-police relations were nonexistent, he said.

Green often is pleasantly surprised by how many residents of what he called “challenged” neighborhoods like their surroundings, he said. But fixing crime in those neighborhoods is a long-term process.

Community action groups are a good way to build relationships between law enforcement and residents beset by intertwining and complex problems such as low graduation rates, high teen pregnancy levels, poverty, drugs, violence and gang activity.

“It’s not a coincidence that some areas of the city are safe and some are not,” Green said. “If they had a 70 percent graduation rate in one of the suburban schools, the parents would march on the administration and burn down the school.”

But it’s tough, Green conceded. Last year was “a good year” for the murder rate, but while a rise in homicides often is pinned squarely on drug activity, murder problems are more complicated than simple turf wars.

There’s no question violence and drugs are related, Green said, but reining in violence in a street culture in which the slightest show of disrespect — looking at someone’s girlfriend — can lead to a bullet in the head, is a difficult task. Dialogue and cooperation between police and residents are critical, he said, and TIPS and programs like it are helping.

“Our primary purpose is to build a bridge,” Green said. “We hope to get a freer flow of information.”
Another way

Project Exile, a program initiated in Richmond, Va., in 1998 and adopted by many U.S. cities, including Rochester, seeks to move certain firearms charges to federal courts, where the accused suffer stiffer penalties.

Its local chairman, Gary Mervis, said the initiative has its supporters — most notably the NRA — and its detractors, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which sees as a discriminating against minorities. But it can’t be argued that the program hasn’t been successful.

Project Exile is credited for removing 10,000 guns from Rochester’s streets. Mervis said the right of gun ownership should be seen as an awesome one. All too frequently, especially in neighborhoods where TIPS operates, it’s not, Mervis said.

Despite Project Exile’s efforts, there are still too many incidents of gun violence. Mervis echoed Green’s comments on urban street culture’s strict code of respect.

“When times are tough,” he said, “and people and guns are present together, anything can elevate into a life-and-death situation.”

Like Metzger, Mervis said he judges the success of community action programs by the qualitative analysis gleaned from the TIPS questionnaires and less formal data, such as the number of mothers and kids who show up for the events and the free food they eat, which during the last TIPS event totaled 700-some hot dogs and hamburgers.

There are other signs of success, Mervis said, such as a resident who led police to a man recently involved in a high-speed chase that began in the suburbs and ended in the city. It all starts, he said, with people taking a true interest in their neighbors and community.

Green agreed.

“When I was a kid and I did something wrong, two or three of my neighbors would have told my parents about it before I got home,” he said. “And my parents would have been grateful for that.”

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