Programs to stop the violence in Rochester are not new, as anyone who has walked with groups such as Pathways to Peace, Roc Against Gun Violence Coalition, Rise Up Rochester and Roc the Peace will attest.
But as much as those and other community organizations have tried to work together on trying to address causes, intercept actions and cope with the aftermath, there hasn’t been an overarching structure to the efforts.
Mayor Lovely Warren on May 4 announced the new Office of Neighborhood Safety to coordinate the community’s work. Warren made the announcement at the Father Tracy Advocacy Center on North Clinton Avenue, and she was flanked by members of City Council, the Monroe County Legislature and neighborhood residents.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety would be led by citizens, not law enforcement, and be housed in the Department of Recreation and Human Services It will be a hub to coordinate a comprehensive strategy for violence reduction and guide public and private investment in social programs.
Rochester’s ONS is based on similar offices in Richmond, California and Newark, New Jersey.
The money will be taken from the 2021-22 police budget and allocated to the Department of Recreation and Human Services, which will administer funding and oversee the operation. The plan is to hire a coordinator in May.
Details will be in the mayor’s proposed budget, which goes to City Council in the next few weeks.
As reformers called for change after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the death of Daniel Prude in custody of the Rochester Police Department, DRHS has emerged as the city department responsible for reimagining public safety. DRHS houses crisis intervention services, which includes the Person in Crisis team.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety was outlined in Warren’s Equity & Recovery Agenda. That document was more visionary than explanatory It called for “credible messengers” to mediate conflicts; transformative mentoring from people who have lived in violent conditions; job readiness; building trust between residents and public officials; analysis of public safety data and coordinating non-police response to issues such as homelessness, substance use and mental health needs.
The blueprint for the Office of Neighborhood Safety is a work in progress, but several speakers said the city has to try something new to quell violence that has claimed 22 lives through early May.
A request for proposals will be issued in January, inviting response from community organizations that can demonstrate an ability to help accomplish the objectives of the violence prevention strategy. The violence prevention summit would re-convene in July 2022 to assess the effectiveness of the strategy and offer improvements.
Warren later said ONS would coordinate the work of existing volunteer anti-violence groups. “The difference now is the city is putting in a dedicated coordinator to work with all these different initiatives.”
She said that approach would break down silos “and be the glue that holds everybody together.” She said ONS would be able to help identify needs of both of the organizations – perhaps by offering stipends – and of the people being touched by the effort.
DRHS Commissioner Daniele Lyman-Torres also provided some details.
She said this new part of city government “starts with coordination, bringing everyone together and focusing on a plan and set of outcomes and goals.”
She said a summit will be convened this summer and an inventory of violence-prevention efforts will be taken. “Then we’re going to create a strategy together, instead of as individual organizations or programs. This office can serve a hub for funding for the plan itself and outcomes and accountability, and communicate with the public.”
As for getting consensus: “I think it’s about focusing on that shared outcome because I think every community association would agree they would like violence to be reduced. So if that’s the common goal, that’s what we’re going to stay focused on. And really looking at evidence-based strategies that have worked in place that are very similar to ours. We know that’s not a direct prescription, but we have to try to implement some things that worked in other places.”
What kinds of violent activities will ONS look at first? “We’re going to start first with that person to person violence, the gun violence, knife violence, the homicide because that’s where violence is just erupting. … It’s starting there, so we have to start there, too.
Is there a timeframe for action? I don’t want to get off the planning that’s coming from the neighborhoods. I’m going to look to them to establish milestones and also small wins that we can do to have short term effects immediate as well as long term goals. More to come on that. … We’re going to start with convening the summit his summer. The (coordinator) position is being hired. So right now is right now. We’re going to do what we can in that planning for those small wins that can have immediate impact.
Lyman-Torres said people who want to get involved can contact DRHS. The phone number is (585) 428-6755.