SCHENECTADY — Gun violence has spared few American cities this summer, rippling across the United States amid a season of civil unrest, pandemic and economic turmoil.
In urban areas both large and small, police forces have had to contend with spikes in gun-related violence that haven’t been seen in years.
The Capital Region’s three major urban areas — Albany, Schenectady and Troy — have experienced their own increases in violence.
Yet the Electric City emerged from the summer having managed to largely buck the overall trend (despite recording the city’s fifth homicide of the year on Friday night) and end with fewer homicides and a more muted spike in shootings compared with its Capital Region counterparts.
Why did Schenectady see a less dramatic increase?
Untangling crime statistics is notoriously tricky, but stakeholders have offered varying reasons.
“It’s a combination of a lot of hard work done by officers,” said city Police Chief Eric Clifford last week. “We are being proactive in doing investigations, and our investigative bureau has been working non-stop around the clock.”
When compared to the same time period last year, shootings nearly doubled from January to August, from 10 to 19.
The number of victims saw a similar increase, from 11 to 26 (not including the slaying of Elnahcere S. Vincent, a 22-year-old Albany resident who died after being shot multiple times in front of a State Street liquor store on Friday night).
Despite the uptick, the numbers aren’t as pronounced as they are in Albany, where 29 people were injured by gunfire last year, three of them fatally — and all of them after October.
The number of gunshot victims soared to 101 this year as of Sept. 16 — a nearly 250 percent increase.
Just last week, a 37-year-old man was shot and killed, the city’s 11th fatal shooting (and 15th homicide overall, tying 2018 for a record-high number).
The numbers are similar in Troy, where 27 people were shot between January and August, up from 6 during the same time period last year, a 350 percent increase.
While the city did not incur any gunshot-related homicides during the first nine months of 2019, according to data submitted to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), six have been fatally shot this year to date — including Ayshawn Davis, the 11-year-old whose death has left the community reeling — and Tamari Rodriguez, a 17-year-old who died on Friday after being shot the previous day.
Clifford noted gun violence transcends municipal borders, and is mindful that much of the violence in Schenectady is caused by players from elsewhere (and vice-versa).
But oftentimes, it can simply be a matter of luck, he acknowledged, with bullets missing people, a viewpoint echoed by county District Attorney Robert Carney.
Carney acknowledged while the increase in gun violence isn’t as pronounced in the Electric City, a 90 percent increase in shootings is still significant.
“I do think recently because of some arrests of people we consider to be repeat or multiple shooters, the statistics have been reduced a bit,” Carney said.
Carney wondered if bail reform, which eliminated cash bail for many crimes (and some non-violent ones), played a role.
“I can’t point to specific cases,” Carney said. “But when you look at statewide trends beginning in January, there’s nothing else you can point to — it seems like a logical inference.”
A recent PolitiFact report revealed more data is needed to draw a definitive conclusion.
William Rivas, co-founder of Save Our Streets, attributed the more muted numbers in Schenectady to the close-knit network of activists, agencies, non-profits, educators and public officials working together to avert violence and provide diversionary programming for at-risk youth.
“Any success in stopping violence in Schenectady I attribute to the community as a whole,” Rivas said.
Following a rash of shootings in July, Save our Streets brought together several gang-affiliated mentors to give youngsters a dose of straight talk, warning them to reject the allures of the gang lifestyle.
Those efforts are ongoing, Rivas said, and he believes sustained mentoring helps to tamp down violence.
“People in the community are having conversations and they’re checking up on people,” Rivas said.
That’s not to say Albany and Troy aren’t engaged in similar efforts, he said.
But each city is at a different stage in the process.
“A few years ago, Schenectady was really bad and it took time to build up those resources,” Rivas said. “Sometimes it takes a little more work.”
The city notched 10 homicides in 2015, a number that dropped to 1 in 2018, with the five-year average now at 2.
And until the slaying of Fred Gentry in May, a murder in which no arrests have been made, the city went without a gun-related homicide for 16 months.
The rash of gun violence in the Capital Region has come as a harsh reversal of what’s otherwise been a decade-long decline in crime.
Overall crime dropped by nearly 31 percent in Schenectady between 2009 and 2018, according to a 2019 DCJS report (although violent crime saw a 5 percent uptick).
Albany saw a net decrease of 24.5 percent in total crime, and an 18 percent reduction in violent crime over the same period, while Troy had a 37 percent overall decrease, and a 19.2 percent drop in violent crime.
Each of the cities participates in the Gun Involved Elimination Initiative, the state initiative designed to reduce gun violence.
This year, said John Scott, “has been very disheartening on multiple levels.”
Scott, co-founder of 4th Family Incorporated in Albany, can’t point to a definitive reason for the city’s spate of shootings, but said numerous factors likely play a role, including pent-up tensions from COVID, ongoing racial unrest and tensions with law enforcement — all of which compound pre-existing stressors that lead to gun violence.
“It’s just been the culmination of a perfect storm and it’s had a direct impact on inner-city communities.” Scott said.
When it comes to untangling the disparity in gun violence between Schenectady and Albany, he suspects the dynamics are rooted in a 2011 federal probe that resulted in scores of people being convicted on narcotics and other charges.
As they’ve trickled out of prison, Scott says the ex-cons are now grooming the next generation of dealers.
“Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority have not been rehabilitated,” Scott said.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares said no area in the state is immune to the increase in gun violence, and the Capital Region is no exception.
“Albany carries a rich history of gang violence feuds between our uptown and downtown neighborhoods, with recent violence mostly staying within the borders of these areas,” Soares said. “The increased levels of gang violence and retaliatory street justice we are seeing is on pace to reach historic levels this year.”
Scott estimated a core group of between 25 and 40 adolescents are responsible.
“A lot of these kids are trying to make a name for themselves, and that’s what’s really happening a lot in Albany,” Scott said. “It can really be an overwhelming thing when there’s constant gun violence every day.”
That’s why diversionary programming is so important, he said.
Fourth Family works with at-risk youths, including former gang members, primarily steering them into STEM programming.
Jerry Ford, co-founder of Team Hero in Troy, agrees youth programming is essential to preventing violence and breaking generational cycles of incarceration and criminal activity.
“The old folks say an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” said Ford, who also cited pandemic-related restrictions as potential reasons for the uptick.
He also said the city of Troy lacks a youth department, and went without swimming pools for years after they were closed for repairs.
“Will we ever know what it is specifically?” Ford said. “I don’t know, but it’s a terrible concoction and our communities and families are devastated.”