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New role for Rochester's Red Shirts?

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The guy hit the gas instead of the brake, sending his car smashing through the garage wall of his home in Rochester's Grove Place neighborhood, and rupturing a gas line. He tried to call Rochester Gas and Electric — you know how much fun that can be — but then the Red Shirts showed up. The Red Shirts saw the severity of the situation and were able to get the fire department down there in moments.

The Red Shirts are a safety services team, part of the Downtown Special Services Program. The team is made up of 23 salaried members who complete rounds throughout downtown Rochester — High Falls and everything inside the Inner Loop — on foot and by bicycle. All members are retired law enforcement officers — most from the Rochester Police Department — and all except one are part time. They're unarmed, and easily spotted by their red polo shirts and the fact that they usually work in pairs.

The Red Shirts are essentially a high-octane neighborhood watch program, acting as eyes and ears for the police department and other first responders. They also have a "walk you to your car" service available on request, which is frequently used by guests staying at downtown hotels.

"There is a pretty intense constituency for this," says Rochester Mayor Tom Richards. "The people who like it, like it a lot."

The Red Shirts fielded 661 walking requests in 2012, according to a contact and incident log.

They also have fixed posts: places where Red Shirts keep a regular presence. For example, female employees of a downtown law firm were being routinely harassed by a gauntlet of young people as they tried to exit their building and get to their cars, says Chris Vigliotti, supervisor of the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts are now at the building every day from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

"It has solved the problem," Vigliotti says. "They're so grateful to see us there. I get a bigger thrill out of hearing the 'thank you's,' just knowing that you've done something and put these women at ease as they're leaving work."

But downtown is changing: the climate, culture, and maybe even the geography, officials say. And, they say, it's probably time for the Red Shirts to change, too. What that evolution might look like is being decided now.

"I think it's inevitable," Richards says. "It's going to evolve."

They weren't always red. When City Council established the Downtown Special Services Program in 1994, part of the package was the "Downtown Guides," who were essentially friendly people out on the street giving directions and performing hospitality-type duties.

The guides were college students, but the turnover was high and there were other complications. So the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, which managed the guides and now manages the Red Shirts, began using retirees. The retirees wore green uniforms and headgear resembling Australian slouch hats.

But gradually, city officials began to recognize that the issues downtown were changing and that people wanted a harder-edged program focusing more on safety than ambassador activities, says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the RDDC. And that's when the Red Shirts program was initiated.

The annual budget for the Downtown Special Services Program is about $530,200, funded by a service fee tacked on to the tax bill of most property owners within the special district set up by City Council in 1994. Homestead properties — those with four or fewer housing units — are exempt.

As former law-enforcement officers, the Red Shirts know the culture and rhythm of the streets, Zimmer-Meyer says, and they project an aura of authority that diffuses potentially volatile situations. She cites an incident where the rival East High and Franklin football teams were exchanging words downtown by the Liberty Pole. The posturing began and it looked like things might become physical, Zimmer-Meyer says, until the group spotted a pair of Red Shirts across the street. The altercation ceased, she says, and the group split up.

"You don't want to put yourself in harm's way if you don't have to," Vigliotti says. "But I think we have really prevented — and it's very difficult to measure prevention — a lot of situations."

And having the Red Shirts perform duties like keeping an eye on vacant buildings or contacting property owners when something seems amiss at their homes or businesses frees up the RPD for more serious matters, Zimmer-Meyer says.

"Our guys are not a police force," she says. "They are eyes and ears. They create a perception of safety that's very valuable."

The Red Shirts did 7,728 "special attention checks" — places they keep an extra eye on — from July 1, 2012 to February 28, 2013.

The new police section opening downtown this summer and long-percolating trends like the renewed appeal of urban living mean that the Red Shirts program is ripe for reinvention, officials say. More people and more development downtown mean less opportunity for some public safety issues, she says.

She says it would be incredible if in a decade, Rochester no longer needs the Red Shirts. But for now, Zimmer-Meyer says, there are still areas of open territory downtown — including a sea of parking lots — "where you don't feel like anyone's watching."

The changes in Rochester's downtown mean the services that support downtown need to change, she says. For example, the Downtown Enhancement District, which provides supplemental services like graffiti removal and general clean-up and repair to contributing property owners, doesn't cover all of Rochester's East End — the epicenter of city nightlife. That's because the East End wasn't the "East End" when the district was formed decades ago, Zimmer-Meyer says.

It could also mean new duties and new hours for the Red Shirts. Mayor Richards says he's not sure how the program will evolve, but it could turn out, for example, that the Red Shirts focus more on quality of life issues, he says, instead of public safety

"This coming year is the year we have to answer this question," he says. "What could happen, for instance, is their hours could change in recognition of the fact that the police presence is larger. The area they cover could change in the sense that they don't come down to the major part of downtown at all because they don't need to. That answer to that is, we'll see. What I don't want to do is throw the whole thing out before we had a chance to think our way through it."

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