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New federal task force targets gun violence in Rochester 

click to enlarge A makeshift memorial for Genuine Ridgeway, a 31-year-old mother of two, killed just steps from the First Church of God on Clarissa Street in June.

PHOTO BY JAMES BROWN

A makeshift memorial for Genuine Ridgeway, a 31-year-old mother of two, killed just steps from the First Church of God on Clarissa Street in June.

Standing a few steps from where a mother was shot to death in front of her two children in Rochester last month, United States Attorney James Kennedy on Wednesday announced the formation of a federal task force aimed at slowing the gun violence in the city over the next two months.

He said the Federal Violence Prevention and Elimination Response (VIPER) Task Force will include officers from myriad law enforcement agencies, from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security, and the Drug Enforcement Administration to the local Rochester Police Department, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and the District Attorney’s Office.

The force, Kennedy said, will partner to form targeted patrols, enhance information sharing between the agencies, proactively investigate and prosecute crimes, and conduct a daily review of gun arrests over the next 60 days. The review would help law enforcement decide what cases should face federal prosecution, he said.

Kennedy said the task force's work will be re-examined after the 60-day surge and officials will decide whether to continue the stepped-up efforts.

More than 200 people have been shot and nearly 40 people have been killed in Rochester this year to date. One of them was Genuine Ridgeway, a 31-year-old mother of two, who was killed just steps from the First Church of God on Clarissa Street in June, where Kennedy and a flank of law enforcement officers staged their news conference.

“We will carefully analyze recent shootings, regional data, and intelligence information to prioritize our investigative resources toward the worst offenders," Kennedy said.

Kennedy also expressed hope that the task for could help ramp up efforts to repair relations between the police and the community it services. He said the dynamic between the two is currently “us versus them" and needs to be “police and community vs. violent offenders.”

“It's important to remember that law enforcement cannot solve this problem alone. We need your help,” said Kennedy. “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."

Judging by the reaction from some onlookers at the news conference, there is much work left on the community engagement side of the equation.

At one point, Kennedy was interrupted by a group of nearly two dozen residents that included Van Smith, executive director of Recovery Houses of Rochester. The residents were concerned about violence and asked pointed questions about the notable absence of Mayor Lovely Warren from the news conference and why neighborhood groups like theirs didn't know about the task force before the announcement.

Smith said the approach taken by law enforcement was reminded him of the 1980s.

“It almost feels like deja vu, where you had the arrests go up and the problem continues to go unaddressed,” Smith said.

Smith would like to see systemic problems like poverty and joblessness addressed as well.

A similar task force is expected to be announced in Buffalo later this week.

A statement on social media from local Black Lives Matter organization Free the People Roc was critical of the task force.

“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," the statement read. "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.”

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI, a media partner of CITY.

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