Listen to Me… A Mayor Speaks about Crime & Violence in his town


My point is not to deny our violence problem. It is, instead to suggest that to understand us or any city, you must look closely.


Like many cities — especially those of the once-industrial north — my city of Rochester, NY has made the news for the past 20 years for the level of violence within it. But the comparisons that singled us out are much less reliable than they may seem. Had we been able to grow beyond our 35 square miles by annexing our suburbs, like many cities in the southwest and west for example, we would be counted as one of the safest cities in the country. If you looked closely at more than two-thirds of our city, you would come to the same conclusion. Look only into our poorest neighborhoods however, and you will find the violence that cities with a different demography, a different economy or a different history have been able to deflect, dilute or perhaps, prevent.

My point is not to deny our violence problem. It is, instead to suggest that to understand us or any city, you must look closely. The shortcuts we use to rank order municipalities only simplify and distort that truth. To truly understand a city's problems and to search for workable solutions, one must look beyond the headlines and into the details.

Take a close look at the problem of violence in Rochester and you will be startled by its concentration. The victims of homicide, for example, are most often young, African-American males. Almost all live within a few square miles of each other and almost all are killed by neighbors who share similar demographics; similar criminal histories; and similar records of educational underachievement and unemployment. So concentrated is our homicide problem that the rate for young, black men is 65 times the rate of the population as a whole. So concentrated is our homicide problem that it has become a shared fact of life in our poor neighborhoods. There, it is difficult to escape exposure to violence. It is impossible to grow up and not to know its victims, its perpetrators or both. As Mayor, I worry about the growth of a culture that may come to accept as normal such high levels of violence in one segment of our population.

Even with our concentrated problem of violence, many of its neighbors are strong, hard-working, proud members of their community. But the stresses are clear and multiplying. For example, it is through these same neighborhoods that almost all released prisoners re-enter Rochester. In heavy concentration themselves, they join high numbers of others under criminal justice supervision. Probationers are concentrated there, and the jail and prison continues to draw disproportionately from those localities. In these neighborhoods, as many as one in three of all young men is under criminal justice supervision of some sort at any given time. The graduation rates from our city schools hovers from 38-45%. Almost two-thirds of all crime here is committed by high school dropouts. Our school system is one of the most generously-funded in all of N.Y. State, $22,000 per student. It can be fertile ground for those who would discourage community involvement or cooperation with the agents of criminal justice.

It is not just today's problems that affect these neighborhoods. Decades of serious crime and the criminal justice system's response to it, often incarceration, have weakened them also. In them, there are fewer than expected marriage eligible males and comparatively few adults are left to nurture and supervise large numbers of children.

In Rochester, we recognize that our neighborhoods play a critical role in how our children grow up, in how they may succeed or fail in school, and in the chances that they will live a long and healthy life. We recognize the need to help strengthen those neighborhoods. As we work to do so, we will seek to support those making positive strides. We will work to strengthen the problem-solving capacities of our neighborhoods and to minimize the collateral damage done as we move forward. Our goal is to adopt approaches to crime and criminal justice that foster and develop sustainable communities.

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