ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — United States Attorney James Kennedy Jr. held a press conference in Rochester Wednesday to announce a new federal task force aimed at reducing the recent gun violence in the city.
Last week, the United States Attorney’s Office of Western District of New York met with Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley and Chief of Rochester Police Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan to discuss the use of federal resources to combat “violence, gun crimes, and homicides.”
Rochester has already seen 38 homicides this year as of Wednesday, and is on pace for an all-time record of more than 70, Kennedy said. In 2019, the city saw 32 homicides, up from 28 in each year of 2017 and 2018. In 2020, that number jumped to 52, an increase of 150% over three years.
“Moreover, 200 people have been so far this year in Rochester in just over half a year,” Kennedy said. “The frequency of this violence is only matched by its depravity. Just a few weeks ago, at this very spot, a 31-year-old mother of two was repeatedly shot and killed, in broad daylight, as she sat in her car with her 3-year-old and 9-year-old children. The time has come for the good people of Rochester, our everyday citizens, to say ‘enough is enough.’ The time has come for us to take back our streets and restore some level of public safety.”
The U.S. Attorney announced the creation of a new federal task force to reduce violence in Rochester, called the VIPER Task force.
“The VIPER Task Force will seek to accomplish its objective by enhancing the one methodology that research has consistently shown to be proven effective as a method of reducing crime, and that method is proactive policing,” Kennedy said.
“They will assign significant resources and manpower as part of a 60-day surge to target the worst of the worst in terms of violent offenders in our community. They will supplement the efforts of the Rochester Police Department, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, who have all committed to this effort.”
In addition to targeting known violent offenders, the will be a new daily process where all local gun charges will be subject to review by state and federal prosecutors.
“We will fish with a spear, not a net,” Kennedy said. “In addition to using enhanced targeted enforcement, we’re going to make enhanced use of federal prosecution. VIPER will prioritize the arrest and federal prosecution of people who possess firearm and ammunition. We will prioritize the arrest and federal prosecution of individuals who unlawfully buy, sell, traffic, or attempt to illegally buy, sell, or traffic guns in our community. We will also prioritize the arrest and federal prosecution of violent criminal and drug dealers who illegally posses firearms.
“We are instituting a process where by all Rochester gun arrests will be subject to daily real-time review, by both state and federal prosecutors,” Kennedy said. “During these daily reviews, we will determine whether a particular subject is worth of state, prosecution, federal prosecution, or dual prosecution. We will carefully analyze recent shootings, regional data, and intelligence information to prioritize our investigative resources toward the worst offenders.”
Even with increased police efforts, the U.S. Attorney said law enforcement will rely on community cooperation.
“It’s impossible for law enforcement to solve this problem alone,” Kennedy said. “We need the help of the public. The last 18 months have taught us that effective, proactive policing cannot take place until, and unless, the community supports it. The only way the community will support it is if they are being treated fairly and with respect. Therefore, VIPER will also rely on enhanced community engagement.
“The biggest danger to the lives of those living in our inner city community is violent crime,” Kennedy said. “The leading cause of death for young Black males in this country is homicide. Minority communities are being disproportionately impacted by this violence and in order to stop this violence, we need the help of the good and decent citizens living in those communities most impacted by this violence.”
The U.S. Attorney says recent civil unrest has aligned with the surge in violence.
“Don’t think it’s any coincidence that the increase in violent experiences in the last 18 months or so coincides with the deterioration of police and community relations,” Kennedy said. “My request to our community is that we adjust our collective mindset. The time has come for everyone to stop thinking us verse them as the community versus the cops and start thinking of us verse them as the community and the cops versus the violent offenders. It’s time to start healing the wounds and the division in our community. While law enforcement has, and not without some justification, been repeatedly called out by the community of late, the community and law enforcement needs to begin the healing process.”
“Our federal partners, our local partners, everybody I think would agree that it’s been a really tough year that we’ve been facing so far,” Chief Herriott-Sullivan said. “As you’ve heard from me in previous comments that I want our public to feel safe and I want them to feel free to move about the community. I just want to reiterate again as the U.S. Attorney has mentioned as well that my goal is that our folks target the violent gun-offending criminals and leave the everyday people who are living their lives out of it whenever possible. I think if we can stay on task with that, we’ll be OK.”
The U.S. Attorney said the VIPER Task Force’s work begins Wednesday and they will review the work at the end of the aforementioned “60-day surge.”
“We are using all of our federal resources to identify and apprehend the violent criminals,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to hold people’s feet to the fire, we’re going to see whether we can actually effect a change, and I think within that time we could see a significant decrease in the violence because the principles we announced today, and I think we can reassess in 60 days. I believe there will be a change, but we can revisit in two months. It will be measured by reducing the number of violent shootings and murders in the city of Rochester, period. At the end of the day, that’s how we measure our success.”
The U.S. Attorney said this is a short term attempt at a solution, while recognizing that long-term solutions need to be developed to address the root causes of crime.
“We must address some of the root causes of crime in our community, but we will never be able to meaningfully address those causes until safety is achieved,” Kennedy said. “While more economic opportunities should be available, businesses cannot take root and provide better jobs and opportunities if our streets are shooting galleries.”
“The part here is only about trying to deal with the gun violence,” Herriott-Sullivan said. “We also have pieces that are coming to get at the causes. When we’re all talking amongst each other, the sheriff included, our feeling was always that this is just one piece. I didn’t want to be involved in just making arrests, I wanted to get at the root causes, the disparity in the justice system.”
Kennedy said the U.S. Attorney’s Office would organize a future public hearing to further discuss issues and progress with the task force as it pertains to violence in the city.
“Can we solve every problem with this? No, but what we’re trying to do is establish a baseline of public safety so everybody can feel safe and that’s what we’re trying to address,” Kennedy said. “This is an attempt to establish some measure of law and order in our community, till the soil so to speak, so the flowers can grow.”
“We all realize this problem is left of center,” said Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter. “This all could have been prevented 10 years ago if we were talking like we’re talking today. We have work today, but we have to get up in front of it. We agree, currently we have have beautiful people being destroyed, families being destroyed. That’s where strategic law enforcement comes in, stop the bleeding. We can’t forget the social economics, we can’t forget community relations, we can’t forget our history 100%, and then recover on the other end. Backfill that with social services so we can stabilize a home.
“This is not because of any political reasons, this is here because these people came all the way from Buffalo to say ‘how can we help?'” Baxter said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a disaster emergency on gun violence on for the state of New York Tuesday, a first-of-its-kind disaster emergency for the country.
Across the nation, there has been an increase in violent crimes. The 72 largest cities have already seen a 17% increase in crime this year compared to last.
Some members of the local police departments said Tuesday they want to see more of a police presence to prevent crime, while other organizations said they wanted to see more mediation efforts on city streets.
Free the People ROC, a local Black Lives Matter group, released the following statement denouncing the federal task force Wednesday:
“Federal law enforcement are using the same strategies that destroyed Black and brown communities, ruined lives, and created the largest prison population in the world. We can’t punish our way to safety. Public safety and an end to the violence demands real community investment, violence interruption, and mental health and substance use services. Stop-and-frisk, pretextual stops, and other forms of ‘proactive’ policing openly discriminate against Black men and open the door for more devastating police violence.
We urge our city leaders to invest in actual solutions by bringing in Advance Peace, a proven community-based violence interruption program that doesn’t rely on policing and punishment to prevent violence. Unlike the proposed federal task force, Advance Peace has a track record of decreasing gun violence in communities like ours. It’s time to act.”
Watch the full news conference
This is a developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.