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‘What would a safe community look like?’

All the candidates have pledged to make crime a priority. Here’s what they’re up against.

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For starters, here's what a safe community wouldn't look like: a 12-year-old gunned down walking home from a friend's house; a 2-year-old hospitalized after an illegal handgun went off unexpectedly in her home; a troubled 13-year-old nearly killed by a police officer she charged with a kitchen knife. But this summer, these have been the headlines.

So it's no wonder citizens' concerns about crime and violence are near the top of the list of issues the mayoral campaigns are talking about. Here's the problem: What can a candidate say about crime that's substantive, not merely smooth political rhetoric?

RIT criminologist John Klofas puts it much more bluntly: "Public safety is almost always a throwaway issue in any campaign," he says. "All you gotta do is take the obvious position." (Full disclosure: Klofas has provided advice for each of the three major Democratic campaigns.)

After all, any politician in their right mind is going to denounce violence and pledge to doing something about it. And all the mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary have made that commitment and then some. They've all pledged to make fighting the many root causes of violent crime --- poverty, bad education, unemployment, a pervasive drug culture --- a priority.

But does that even matter? On the one hand, voters have this luxury: All of the Democratic candidates recognize that criminal activity is more than just the sum of the bad guys divided by the number of police officers on the streets. But that alone doesn't distinguish any one of the pack from his competitors.

And it may obscure a more important question: What can a mayor really do about crime, short-term, long-term, or any-term?

The obvious place to start to answer that question is the police department. Since the mayor hires the police chief, that's the first place he can influence public safety in the city. It's also one of the many places that individual candidates' approaches to the issue may begin to diverge.

One important question, says Klofas, is: "How much do people expect their mayor to run the police department?" Should he micromanage? Or hire the best person and give him or her plenty of latitude? Klofas says the latter best describes how Mayor Bill Johnson treated the department.

"That's probably a very reasonable approach," he adds.

Contrary to campaign rhetoric, "more police" may not necessarily be all that simple an answer. Divide 50 new police officers by three shifts a day and spread them out to cover weekends, vacations and holidays and that might translate into 10 more officers on the street at any given time, says Klofas.

"To really change the distribution of police on the street, you have to make massive hires," he says. "The more important question is: How are you going to use what you've got?"

Group 14621 Executive Director Joan Roby-Davison has similar doubts about the effectiveness of simply throwing more officers at a problem.

"If they all end up chasing 911 calls, I don't know if we're further ahead," she says.

But while few people think Rochester can simply police its way out of our problem with crime and violence, more can be done, argues Klofas.

"There's still room for the criminal justice system to affect the level of crime," he says. That's especially true when it comes to one important factor, he says: Influencing people's decision to carry a gun.

Klofas isn't just theorizing here. As a professor, some of his research into local crime comes from extensive interviews with inmates. Contrary to popular belief, he says, turf wars between drug dealers or drug-related gangs isn't the cause of most violence. Demand for the substances is so high that competing dealers can set up shop next to each other and still do a brisk trade.

"There was more demand for drugs than they could ever supply," Klofas says inmates told him. One street-level source concurred, describing some corners as veritable drug "food courts," with multiple vendors selling specific drugs side by side.

Violence usually enters the scene not for economic reasons but for personal ones: What starts as a petty argument between acquaintances escalates to trading insults. All too often, someone has a gun on them or stashed nearby.

"Those arguments made up over half of our homicides" in a recent study, says Klofas. The crucial moment in stopping these murders isn't at the point when arguments begin to heat up, but hours earlier, when a young man makes the decision about whether to pack a gun that night or not.

In other words, the norm in Rochester is not the Crips vs. the Bloods vs. the Latin Kings; it's DeMario Moore --- who lost his life for being smiled at by the wrong guy's girl.

One of the ways law-enforcement officials can make a difference on the street ---both in the number of illegal guns and in crime in general --- is through targeted enforcement and special crime-fighting programs, says Klofas. Word about these plans gets out on the street and can make a difference. One recent example is the Project Ceasefire, which uses technology that helps police detect the source of gunshots.

Drives like Project Ceasefire suffer the drawback of having a short shelf life, though, Klofas says.

"When you change operations, people [take the change seriously] for a while but it slowly wears away," he says. That's because criminals who don't get caught in that particular effort grow emboldened over time, even while police energy is ebbing.

"It's easier to do something than to sustain something," he explains.

That is also true when it comes to the many other complicated factors that affect the level of crime in Rochester.

What would a safe community look like? What creates safety? Police? Other factors? These are all questions for which candidates must be seeking answers, says Klofas.

"If you had a real public safety plan, it would involve a lot more that just police, I would think," he adds.

As evidence, he points to the loosely defined part of town known infamously as the Crescent. With just 30 percent of Rochester's population, it accounts for 80 percent of homicides. But Klofas doesn't even like using the term "crescent."

"If you're going to use it as an organizing principle, then that's fine," he says, but that's not really happening."

"There's no deliberate organization" of social services headed to the Crescent, says Klofas. That will have to change if progress against crime is to be made, he says, and he's not alone.

"Most of the solid strategies are long term," says Roby-Davison. She points with optimism to the RochesterSchool District's Children's Zone program that's getting started in her neighborhood.

"Unless we make significant changes, we're not going to make any significant headway," she says. "I'm talking about the concentration of poverty; I'm talking about kids not getting out of high school, or if they do, there's no jobs."

She cites a study that traced Monroe County Jail inmates' backgrounds and found a correlation between growing up in homes with lead-based paint and violent crimes later in life. Or the lack of enough officers trained to handle mental-health disturbances, like the incident that sent 13-year-old Lashedica Mason to the hospital.

"Where was the mental health intervention?" she asks. "Our social programs have been gutted."

Of course, the mayor has almost no control over the delivery of social services, which is primarily the county's responsibility, and to a lesser extent, that of the state. But in Roby-Davison's mind that doesn't let him off the hook.

"Part of his role is to be an advocate for the people who live in this city," she says. "If that means you have to challenge the county executive or the state, that's your job."

Of course, none of the Democratic candidates would dispute most of this. In fact, they'd probably lay claim much of it as part of their platforms. The tough part is discerning who will be able to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. That raises a tougher series of questions that candidates have yet to grapple with. Klofas tossed out this partial list:

"What is the police role versus what are others' roles? What resources are directed at it? Is there going to be an administrative office that reflects that? To what lengths do you go to have order in certain parts of the city?"

A meaningful political debate on crime and violence will have to tackle questions like those head on and provide specific answers, rather than simply playing to poll results.

"Crime is far more complicated than just how many cops are in the street," observes Roby Davison. "If it were that simple, we would have done it already."

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