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Violence is not a problem of policing. It’s a terrible, complicated societal problem, and police cannot solve it.

Politics, violence, and the city’s mayoral race 

[UPDATED] This is a huge political year in Rochester, so almost any development can take on political overtones. Still, it’s sad to see what happened with a routine but important academic report on Rochester’s homicide rate.

Earlier this month, the Center for Public Safety Initiatives at RIT released its annual report on the city’s homicides for the previous year. As in the past, it wasn’t a broad look at violent crime in Rochester. It was just a report that the center does every year, listing the total number of homicides and the rate per 100,000 residents and comparing those numbers to those of 24 other cities.

Not surprisingly, the report says that Rochester has a “moderately high homicide rate” when compared to the other cities. Some cities have a higher rate (St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit the highest), and some have a lower rate (New York, San Diego, and Colorado Springs the lowest).

Both the number and the rate of homicides grew in Rochester last year.

You can see why someone running against Mayor Lovely Warren might try to capitalize on that news – and why Warren might attack the report. And indeed, that’s what happened.

Warren said the report “lacks important context and does an incredible disservice to the men and women of the Rochester Police Department and the citizens of this great city.” The number of homicides includes several multiple-victim homicides. But the number of individual shooting incidents actually dropped in 2016, by 20 percent, she said. By not including that fact, she said, the report “creates the false impression that the number of incidents of violent crime are rising when in fact they are falling.”

Jim Sheppard, the former police chief hoping to unseat Warren, responded by implying that she wasn’t sensitive to the homicide victims’ families. He accused Warren of trying to “spin” the report, of “sidestepping and avoiding” its findings.

Warren’s other Democratic challenger, Rachel Barnhart, was the only one who instead emphasized the long-term upward trend. Barnhart called for better police-community relations and “a real plan to reduce poverty, create jobs, and provide opportunity.”

Frankly, if I were the mayor, I’d have embraced the report. Standing at a press conference, an arm around a cop on each side of me, I’d have said that the report shows how serious our violence problem is – that it underscores that our dedicated police officers cannot do the impossible.

I’d have said that violence is not a problem of policing. It’s a terrible, complicated societal problem, born out of poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, despair. Police cannot solve those problems.

I would have noted the efforts of my administration – the efforts to reduce the number of shootings and build better police-community relations, the city’s leadership in the anti-poverty initiative. I’d have said that this report shows again the importance of sensible gun-control measures.

And I would have noted the report’s most important finding. The actual big news.

And that is this, from the report’s conclusion: “By any way that it is measured, Rochester has a serious violence problem and has had it, uninterrupted, for nearly 50 years.”

Our violence problem has continued, uninterrupted, for nearly 50 years.

The problem dates back, in fact, to the administration of another Democratic mayor, Frank Lamb. Should we blame Lamb for the violence?

Our homicide rate has increased as middle and upper-income residents moved to the suburbs, the city’s population shrank, and the poverty rate grew. This isn’t the fault of a mayor. It’s not the fault of a police force.
And, in fact, the report makes exactly that point: “The uniformity of the trend means that no city administration or associated law enforcement agency has fared better or worse, and there is no justified criticism of one more than another.”

As the report says, we need a “serious and significant community wide plan and effort” to deal with this. Instead, the important message of a significant annual report on one of this community’s biggest challenges will be buried in the noise of a heated election campaign.

We have to do better than this.

(This article has been updated to include Rachel Barnhart's response to the report.)

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