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Neighbors Grill U.S. Attorney on His Approach to Quelling Rochester Violence

Patti Singer

Antonia Wynter livestreams the news conference of James P. Kennedy Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, on July 7, 2021. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Standing feet away from a memorial to a victim of Rochester’s gun violence, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York heard from residents of the neighborhood about what it will take to quell the shootings.

After James P. Kennedy announced a new federal task force, they told him it would take more than the weight of federal charges on people suspected of gun crimes to solve this problem.

Many of the more than two dozen people who showed up on Garden Street, near where Genuine Ridgeway was shot and killed June 18 in front of her two young children, demanded that Kennedy address the root causes of violence.

They called for more job opportunities and better education. They told Kennedy they needed to be part of the solution and not just have more police in their neighborhoods. They insisted on a voice in what happens in and to their community. For instance, they said they wished they’d been told he was coming to Rochester, rather than have to happen upon the news conference or hear about it secondhand.

As a result, Kennedy pledged a meeting with residents and his representative collected the contact information of 15 people.

“This is the sort of dialogue that needs to take place,” Kennedy said after onlookers peppered him with questions. “Whether I expected it or not, it doesn’t really matter. What I’m happy for is that there are people that care and people that want to try and help the community and that’s all these people are trying to do.”

But some still bristled that Kennedy seemed to want to use residents for information they could supply rather than partner with them to improve their neighborhood’s quality of life.

Van Smith questioned U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. about his federal task force to quell violence in Rochester. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“I’m sorry, but they have the technology, they have the resources, they have everything in regards to addressing these issues,” said Van Smith. “My question becomes, how do you want the community to participate? Do you want us to just feed you information? That’s not a relationship. A relationship is a two-way street.”

Kennedy’s intent at the July 7 news conference was to paint broad strokes of the Violence Prevention and Elimination Task Force, or VIPER for short. He called it a proactive and cooperative approach while at the same time being sensitive to factors that eroded community trust in policing.

The task force involves several federal agencies, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to work with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Rochester Police Department.

Kennedy said the task force, which started July 7, would run for 60 days and could be extended. He said its goal was reducing gun violence, but he didn’t say by how much.

He said VIPER would focus on targeted enforcement, enhanced use of federal prosecution and enhanced use of cooperation and use of data. He said use of federal prosecution was not an end-run around New York state’s bail reform.

Kennedy had talked about community engagement, and after being pressed by Minority Reporter about what that meant, several spectators joined the conversation. Other reporters also pressed the issue. Kennedy, as well as RPD Interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter, spent about 30 addressing the neighbors’ concerns.

“I don’t disagree that they care,” said Antonia Wynter, one of several people livestreaming the event. “When you’re not in the situation, when you’re not in these neighborhoods, you’re a little out of touch. We want to bring them in touch, bring them in focus and make sure they have a well-rounded understanding of how crimes become prevalent and not just the continuous cycle of arresting and conviction because that will be infinite.”

Wynter said it’s crucial that grandmothers, aunts, educators are part of the discussion.

“We need to be consistent and follow through with the things they say they are going to do, especially including partners,” she said.

U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr., left, talks with Dorothy Parnham, right. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Dorothy Parnham, who challenged Kennedy on several points, had a conversation with the U.S. Attorney after the news conference.

“He let me know he heard me,” she said.