ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As Rochester nears 80 homicides this year, News 8 sat down with Rochester Police Interim Chief David Smith to hear about the department’s efforts to control the ongoing violence.
Smith called the increase in crime “frustrating” and something his officers “all take personally.”
News 8’s Ally Peters: Tell me a little bit about what the Rochester Police Department is doing to help keep our community safe?
Interim Police Chief David Smith: “A big part of what we’ve been doing started under Chief Sullivan, is targeting known violent offenders, folks that we know have a violent past or are currently wanted for violent crimes and to get them off the street, the idea being if they have a warrant for an assault, they’re probably out doing other assaults, waiting for that warrant to be served. And what we also want to avoid is blanketing a neighborhood. It’s old-fashioned police work that just…it’s not the time and place for it. First of all, we don’t have the resources for it and second of all, we really want to avoid writing tickets to Joe Tax Payer who is going into work just because there happened to be shots fired down his street. What we want to do is to get the person who fired the shots down his street, rather than everyone in the whole neighborhood.”
Peters: Have you been able to get more weapons or guns off the street in the last few weeks?
Smith said on average they are taking 2 to 3 illegal guns off the streets a day, but this has been happening for the past year. Instead what has changed is they are starting to be more transparent with the public about recovering weapons.
Smith: “What has changed is we are getting better at getting the message out so that folks can actually see what we are doing and what we are doing on a daily basis and so those releases are exactly what that is, is we are trying to get the message out to show folks that we are doing this and it’s hopefully going to have a positive effect.”
Peters: How do you find these guns?
Smith: “A good number of them are proactive stops. An officer may stop a vehicle and some of them it’s in plain view in the vehicle, others the driver may not have a license so he’s taking out of the vehicle and the gun is found that way. Sometimes it’s street stops, we had one a few weeks ago, a gentleman in the bar district with a gun tucked into his waistband and the officers that are out on foot we’re able to recognize that and stopped him to talk to him and recovered the gun that way.”
He added that other weapons are recovered after Spot Shotter activations.
Peters: We’ve heard about the use of Blue Light cameras to help solve cases. Can you tell me how this works and the benefit of it?
Smith said they have around 160 of the cameras across the city and they are able to watch live footage of those locations from the police department, 24/7.
Smith: “If the officers in the camera room see a 9-1-1 job come in, or if they hear it over the radio, then they will go to those cameras to start searching for what they can pick up.”
The cameras have been used for more than 10 years in the department, but Smith says they are constantly evolving and growing.
Smith: “The blue light cameras do, they are very valuable in investigative steps later on. There is certainly more than one homicide investigation where we have been able to present evidence at trial of the suspects around the city either before or after the crime, so they are invaluable.”
Smith added the department also partners with businesses and city residents to access some of their cameras as well.
Smith: “If you have a business and you have outside security cameras, you can sign an agreement with us that gives us access to jump into your camera system if we have an event going on.”
Peters: What would be the biggest change that you are making as a police department to kind of control this violence. If you’ve been using the blue light camera for a while, what are some of those big changes?
Smith: “What I would like to be able to do is to give them more time to do proactive work. Unfortunately because of the staffing situation they have, a large part of their day is spent responding to 9-1-1 calls. We do encourage them to spend whatever down time they have either making proactive stops or even just getting out and doing a little foot patrol and talking to the folks in their beats. I mean the folks that live in the neighborhood are a wealth of knowledge and they’re just afraid to come forward but if we initiatie the connect it often brings us a lot of information that we didn’t already have.”
Smith admitted the department has had “a few tough years” and building trust with the community is needed.
Smith: “The key to doing any successful police work is information. Information comes from sharing and having relationships, and having trust. And if folks think that they can’t trust the police officer, then they’re not going to give that police officer information.”
Peters: What would you say is the biggest obstacle to finding suspects or closing cases?
Smith said two things. 1). Staffing shortages and 2). having a lack of people wanting to come forward with information.
Smith: “We are just going full speed, a lot of folks on overtime and it’s not sustainable. In the end, folks get tired. My biggest fear is that officers are going to get hurt from the load that is on them.”
Peters: Why do you think people don’t come forward with information?
Smith: “We’ve had cases in major cases in the past where, you know, court documents have been turned over to defense attorneys and then been leaked, and then they’ve been on social media. And then our witnesses don’t want to come testify, because their name is all over social media. And that’s that’s a big hindrance.”
Smith said a lack of trust in police also plays a role in the amount of people coming forward with information.
Peters: You’ve brought up staffing issues, what is your staffing currently like?
Smith: “We were not defunded. We have the funding for our slots. What happened is we had a higher number of retirements than expected and we’ve had a number of officers transfer out to other departments. So that has been the biggest effect. So the department is authorized for slightly over 720 sworn positions. I had up until this week 61 through vacancies for officers. We did just bring on a class of 24 however, it will be six months in the academy and then six months of field training. So you know we are always a year behind.”
Peters: Where is the VIPER Task Force? Are they still here?
Smith said the VIPER task force is the Marshal Fugitive Task Force. They use officers from local agencies and they go out and look for violent offenders. Smith said the Marshal Task Force is the primary instrument they use for finding these individuals and then charging them under Viper.
Smith: “The task force is still there. In fact, what we did is we actually just increased it, and created a whole other team on the task force with the officers that the state police provided, and the county sheriff’s office provided. And then we were able to add another two officers to it.”
As of yesterday, the Marshal Task Force now has three teams.
Smith: “What they’re looking for now is folks that we have probable cause to arrest them, we have probable cause to believe they committed a violent offense or gun offense, and they need to be located and then brought to court. And that’s what they’re doing. Oftentimes, these people are they know they’re wanted, they’re in hiding. So it takes some investigative effort to actually locate them, it may take some undercover surveillance.”
He added it could take as much as one to two weeks to catch one person depending on how remote they are. Sometimes the Marshal Task Force is sent out of state to find someone.
As for Smith’s next steps as chief, he said he assumes he will stay on for a few months after Malik Evans takes over as Rochester’s Mayor. Smith says he hopes he can then go back to his previous position as Deputy Chief.
According to Rochester’s Open Data Portal, the city has seen 77 homicides this year. 70% have included the use of a firearm. You can view that data by clicking here.