Police chief listens to residents’ concerns

ROCHESTER — City residents are going to have to join forces with police and community groups to combat the challenges — such as drug sales on street corners — that continue to plague many neighborhoods.

That was the consensus of residents like Norma Ortiz, pastor of Maranatha Misión de Dios, who was one of several people who came out to speak with Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard at Ibero-American Action League’s facility at 214 Clifford Ave. The talk was part of Sheppard’s "Chief on the Street" initiative.

Although Ortiz said that she didn’t come to speak with the chief about a concern or complaint, she did speak with Sheppard about creating a partnership with the department for her neighboring church’s youths, she added.

"We want to be more involved in the community and have the kids see police not as a resource but as a friend," added Ortiz, who moved from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico to Rochester more than 10 years ago.

And the chief’s outreach is a good way for the police to show residents that the department is "trying to do the best for our community," she remarked.

Sheppard said that he created the initiative to give people like Ortiz the opportunity to speak directly with him. Over the past year, he has attended 16 community "Chief on the Street" events and spoken one-on-one with more than 200 residents, according to information provided by Officer Patrick Piano. The initiative also is part of the chief’s overall "Policing in the Spirit of Service" agenda, which includes youth engagement and church tours.

"I want to show I care," Sheppard added. "And if they have talked to me, they have no one else to blame. … And we will follow up."

The meetings with community groups have taken on different formats from town-hall-style forums to one-on-one conversations like the ones he had during Ibero’s event, Sheppard explained. Piano said that he sits in on the private sessions between the chief and residents’ to take notes so that Sheppard is able to fulfill his promise to follow up on the issues and concerns they raise.

"Drugs are number one" when it comes to residents’ concerns, which also include loitering, personal safety and violence, Sheppard noted.

When the department reached out to Ibero to host the Feb. 29 community meeting for Latino residents working and living in the nearby neighborhoods, the agency was happy to comply, said Hilda Rosario Escher, Ibero’s executive director and chief executive officer.

"This is a great opportunity for our community to know that the police department cares about what goes on in the community and is willing to partner with us," noted Rosario Escher.

Sheppard said that he has been impressed by the northeast’s revitalization efforts through Project HOPE, which developed from a proposal by Ibero to improve the lives of residents living in the city’s northeast by focusing on health. With funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation’s Neighborhood Health Status Improvement initiative, Project HOPE has worked to boost the social, physical and economic conditions of the area’s neighborhoods since 2008.

Sheppard said he gives Project HOPE a lot of the credit for leading some of the most dramatic changes in the northeast over the last five years "very much so for the better" that he has seen in his 30 years with the department. Project HOPE has provided safe play areas for children and a community garden for residents to grow their own produce as well as offering new housing options to improve the area’s overall quality of life, Sheppard added.

Community efforts and improved policing also have led to a decrease in the number of incidents in all areas of violent and property crime over the past five years throughout the city, according to the chief’s 2011 report. Residents also may access a neighborhood crime map and sign up for e-mail alerts at www.CrimeReports.com/agency/rpd.

Challenges persist, however, with certain groups of drug dealers who refuse to move from street corners even after a decade of trying to clean up those areas around Clifford and Conkey avenues, said Miguel Meléndez, Project HOPE’s coordinator.

"We can’t get rid of them," he added. "It’s very, very frustrating."

But the chief’s outreach can help residents by establishing the kind of trust that will prompt them to make 911 calls and be more willing to talk to police, noted Meléndez. Increasing police presence will help residents battle such situations, he added.

"The community needs to take him (Sheppard) up on his offer to engage with them," Meléndez concluded.

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