BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN
And there they were, the three words I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks now, but didn’t dare say: “long, hot summer.”
Most people, I think, associate them with the race riots of the 1960’s — or the 1958 Paul Newman film. The New York Post used them last week in a story on the city’s startling jump in deadly violence. Shootings are up 50 percent from last year, the Post said. Fourteen people were shot in a single day.
But New York City isn’t alone. After years of a general downward trend in violent crime, cities all across the country suddenly find themselves cowering under a shower of bullets: Chicago, Syracuse, Denver, New Orleans.
As of last Tuesday, Rochester had 95 shootings in 2012, compared to 55 for the same time last year. Homicides climbed from 15 to 21.
And as troubling as the number is the nature of the shootings. Rochester has long struggled with urban violence, but there’s something about the present atmosphere that feels grittier: like we’ve suddenly gone from network to HBO. Is it the frequency of the shootings? The seemingly arbitrary nature? The lack of someone or something to blame other than, as officials say, the heat?
It’s an atmosphere that feeds on itself. The more unsafe people feel, police say, the more inclined they may be to carry weapons, which of course leads to even more violence.
At a recent budget hearing, City Council members grilled Police Chief Jim Sheppard about the violence in the city. Sheppard’s response — that violent crimes are at all-time lows — was true, but cold soup for representatives with constituents afraid to let their children out the front door.
Sheppard and Mayor Tom Richards announced a new neighborhood “cool-down detail” last week. The purpose, they said, is to keep minor disagreements from escalating.
“The new detail will feature foot and team patrols and other methods of police-citizen interaction in areas that have seen incidents of violence stemming from disputes and arguments,” Richards said at the press conference announcing the initiative.
But it feels like they’re soft-soaping a mini Zero Tolerance, former Mayor Bob Duffy’s infamous and controversial police crackdown.
Police will take a “very aggressive stance,” Sheppard said, and will proactively stop people to try to head off confrontations and to get guns off the street.
“If you have no bell on your bike, we’re going to stop you,” Sheppard said. “If your tail light is out, we’re going to stop you.”
But some civil rights advocates say it’s a wrongheaded strategy that will only further alienate people who don’t have great relationships with law enforcement to begin with.
“If anything, it’s a recipe for racial profiling and civil rights abuses,” says KaeLyn Rich, director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the NYCLU. “I think it’s going to have the opposite effect of what they want. It’s not going to build better police-community relations if people are distrustful of the police because they’re being constantly stopped and harassed.”
And that’s ironic, because both Sheppard and Richards put the onus for ending the violence on the community. Few of the shootings have resulted in arrests, and Sheppard says that’s because people aren’t cooperating with police. Some of these shootings have multiple witnesses, he says, yet no one comes forward.
Bryan Hetherington, chief counsel for the Empire Justice Center, says part of the reason may be that they fear retaliation, but also that police have not established positive relationships in the affected communities.
“The issue isn’t police presence,” he says. “The issue is what do the police do when they’re present? Are they essentially stereotyping? Because that’s what the bells on bikes stuff is.”
Hetherington says he knows that police officers would disagree, but that’s how it feels to the people who are being stopped, many of whom are on bikes because they can’t afford a car.
“That makes it hard when you go and say, ‘Hey, we’re on the same team and we need your cooperation.’”
Everybody’s looking for answers. A recent story in the Syracuse Post-Standard blames gangs for the city’s violent surge. A story in the New York Post, with the understated headline “City Shot to Hell” says: “Cops blamed the bloodbath on rising temperatures and increased scrutiny on the controversial stop-and-frisk procedure.”
There is no simple answer, Hetherington says, and the pursuit of one is part of the problem: “Everybody’s looking for the silver bullet: ‘If we just….’” Nah. At the end of the day, these problems get fixed not with a simple, universally effective program. They get fixed by fixing a lot of the upstream stuff.”
That includes, he says, building better relationships between law enforcement and the community, finding ways to end the “machismo” culture some people have in the city, encouraging long-term rentals instead of month-to-month so people have more investment in their neighborhoods, and focusing on restorative justice — making amends — rather than punishment.