ALBANY — A spate of 13 shootings since July 3 has experts and law enforcement on alert for a potential spread in violence.
“If [Albany Police] determine that anybody involved is in the Schenectady area, then we’ll assist them in that or assist them in that manor," Schenectady Police spokesman Sgt. Matthew Dearing said.
So far, Albany Police and city officials have lamented a lack of cooperation by the public in their effort to solve the shootings, leaving investigators with few leads.
On Saturday, anti-violence activist Elijah Cancer was shot and killed while trying to mediate a conflict on the South End of Albany. Cancer was an employee of the Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region, a group aiming to end gun violence in the area by connecting at-risk locals with police agencies and by sending conflict mediators to street altercations and emergency rooms to prevent further escalation and retaliation.
While police are still trying to pin down motives behind the recent shootings, experts say patterns of violence like the one occurring in Albany can be retaliatory, particularly if drug networks and longstanding conflicts are involved.
SUNY Albany Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice Alan Lizotte, who specializes in gun violence, said retaliatory attacks can lead to a feedback loop wherein the public can be hesitant to cooperate out of fear that they could be the next victims. Lizotte also said that when drug networks are involved, retaliatory attacks can spill over to neighboring cities.
"People don’t have to live in the same neighborhood for there to be a retaliation, so in that sense, sure, it can spill over," Lizotte said, while cautioning against oversimplification of the cause of the recent shootings.
A 2016 study by the American Sociological Review showed that high-profile incidents in which police use force against unarmed African Americans can have a lasting effect on cooperation with police in those communities, compounding tensions between police and communities of color. The study found that in Milwaukee, after the broadcast of the beating of Frank Jude, there was a net loss of 22,200 calls for service to police.
Groups like the Trinity Alliance try to build trust between communities of color and police and encourage cooperating with investigations into violent crime, and the group has called for increased cooperation with Albany police on its Facebook page amid the shootings.
Sgt. Dearing said Schenectady police have made inroads in recent years toward gaining cooperation from residents in solving violent and other crimes, though there is still progress to be made.
"We have been successful in getting community members to cooperate in those serious crimes -- and even those who don’t rise to a serious level -- to get solved a lot quicker," Dearing said. "They can kind of help us as much as we can help them. We’d always love to see more."
Albany Police officials, who could not be reached for comment, have established an anonymous tip line to solicit tips in light of the shootings. Schenectady Police have a similar line, but Dearing said it is only monitored closely during major crimes.
The Sargent added that while anonymous tips can lead to important breakthroughs, residents who are willing to put their names on statements to police save resources, expedite cases, and ultimately keep their neighbors and families safer through their cooperation.
“If you have family or friends or children or grandparents who live in that neighborhood where there’s an incident, you can make that neighborhood safer by talking to us," Dearing said. "If you wish to remain anonymous, you can, but obviously having a name and a statement attached to it strengthens a case.”
Professor Lizotte said it is important for the public to put the recent shootings into a broader context. For example, he cited two trends: A decrease in overall gun violence in the region and nationwide, and an increase in hospitalizations from gun wounds.
The problem, Lizotte said, is fewer people own guns, but the technology has advanced to a point where injuries are maximized.
“The big finding with regard to violence, is that rates of violence are historically very very low both in the Capital District and across the nation in general,” Lizotte said, adding that on the whole, violence levels in America are down to about what they were during the 1950s. "But if you look at how rates of injury are changing over time, there are about 85,000 emergency room visits for firearm injuries every year, and that's been going up every year for the past several years, so (in my research), I'm trying to figure out why that's going up. What do firearm injuries that send people to emergency rooms look like, so that one could figure out how to try and stem that."
In Albany, tensions flared on social media Monday, as groups involved in the fight against gun violence blamed each other. A Facebook post from the Albany Police Union, which was subsequently deleted, targeted civil rights groups such as Albany Cure Violence and members of the community for not cooperating with police. It also targeted Mayor Kathy Sheehan for not dedicating enough resources to police.
Albany Police Acting Chief Robert Sears issued a response on the department's official Facebook page, urging cooperation from the public and for an end to the blame game, saying the post "will inflame an already tense situation."
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said in her own Facebook post that she would not respond to "false claims made on social media by a member of the Albany Police Union," but she took exception to the attacks on Albany Cure Violence.
"I will, however, not ignore the disgraceful dog whistle language used by this same individual to describe Albany Cure Violence – a group of dedicated men and women doing everything in their power to stop gun violence in our communities," Sheehan said on Facebook. "They are owed an apology."
Albany 518 SNUG, an anti-violence group run by the Trinity Alliance, used its Facebook page Monday to inform the public about their work and mission.
"Our teams have Emergency Room access at local hospitals and are called in when a shooting occurs to mediate the confrontation that can lead to retaliation," the post said. "We also partake in community canvasing, as well as hold well-attended community family events throughout the year, where neighbors can meet neighbors."
SNUG and the Trinity Alliance are holding a fundraiser for Cancer, saying 100 percent of donations will go to the upbringing of his children. Donations can be made at https://fundraiser.processdonation.org/Fundraiser/InMemoryofElijah.