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Solutions to Violence Must ‘Change Hearts and Minds of Young People’

Patti Singer

Clay Harris, founder of Uniting and Healing Through Hope of Monroe County, at a May 3 news conference about violence. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

When one part of a community said it wants to defund police and another part of the community said it supports police, how do you bring the community together to find ways to stop the violence?

“That is a very good question,” said Clay Harris, founder of Uniting and Healing Through Hope of Monroe County. “Particularly in the climate we’re in, there is a significant divide.”

Harris said resources and programs specifically have to address issues and problems that are leading to violence. Asked whether community based organizations already are taking that approach, Harris said more refined efforts are needed.

He also said people need to “come out of their homes, come out of their offices, and above all we need to come out of our churches. We have to change the hearts and minds of these young people. If we don’t we’re going to lose not just our community, we’re going to lose our country. We cannot continue to go this way.”

Harris spoke at a news conference called by the Monroe County Chiefs Association to address violence in the city and the towns.

“I’m not excited to be here,” he said. “This is a somber time. Not just today but in general in our community. We’re having our children throwing away their lives and we have to do something about it.”

The Rochester, Gates, Greece and Ogden police departments, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office and the New York State Police were among those represented. Supervisors from Gates and neighboring towns attended, as did Monroe County legislators Frank Allkofer and Yversha Roman.

The news conference included information on the investigation into the fatal carjacking o Buell Road in Gates on April 7. Two teens have been arrested in connection with the homicide.

The Rochester Police Department was among several agencies in a task force that helped Gates Police investigate the homicide of Richard Sciascia.

Gates Police Chief James VanBrederode provided a timeline that stretched back to late February, when one of the suspects, a Rochester resident visiting family in Florida, allegedly stole a car. According to VanBrederode, that incident was the first in a string of events culminating in the encounter on Buell Road.

VanBrederode, who also is president of the Monroe County Chiefs Association, said there has not been a carjacking in the suburbs since the April 7 fatality.

However, violence has not abated. Rochester City School District Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small recently made an emotional announcement about school-age children killed, wounded or who have witnessed gun violence.

“The city of Rochester is what puts us on the map,” he said. “If the city fails, we all fail.”

VanBrederode said law enforcement, the courts and school districts can contribute to solutions. But they aren’t the only ones.

“This is a people problem,” he said. “Us, our families, we have to take back what’s going on right now, instill in our loved ones respect, put down those guns and stop the violence. That is the ultimate message you will hear today.”

Several speakers called on the state legislature to revise bail reform, which they said took away the ability of a judge – elected by the people — to hold someone based on actions they are alleged to have committed. They said they were accused of being fear-mongers.

Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty, however, said that bail can’t be a proxy for wealth.

“I believe in some parts of bail reform,” he said. “The socioeconomic part, I don’t believe poor people should sit in jail while rich people get out. I’m a proponent of judges’ discretion.”

Harris and Van White, president of the Rochester City School District Board of Education and an attorney, said there is a silent majority of people who support police. But they don’t support an abuse of power and they want to be treated with dignity.

Harris said the solution to violence lay in community working together and in faith, and he called for a resetting of the moral compass.

“We cannot be apart,” he said. “We can’t have silos. We have to face this together. It has to start at home. But it also has to start in the church, because this is a moral and values issue that we’ve gotten away from not just as a community but as a nation.”

Harris said Uniting and Healing Through Hope would present its plan at a news conference on May 5.

“There has to be a higher power that we look at and understand that we didn’t appear just to appear,” he said. “We have to love our fellow man, our brothers and sisters. Who are our brothers and sisters? Everybody … is our brothers and sisters. We have to respect one another, we have to love one another. We have to help one another. We can’t hurt one another.”