Over the past several months following the election of President Donald Trump and the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Project Exile has received a lot of attention. Specifically, the Administration has recognized that Project Exile, which relies upon coordinated strategies that bring together all levels of law enforcement to reduce gun crime and make our cities safer, ought to serve as a model for combatting violent crime in cities across America. We, in the Rochester community have the longest running and one of the most successful Project Exiles in the country, and we should be very proud of all that has been accomplished.
During the holiday season of 1997, three uniformed Rochester Police Officers had been shot. Fortunately, none died, but in order for local law enforcement to find how that perpetrator got the gun that he had used into Rochester, they needed the help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). This need resulted in the RPD and the ATF forming a multi-agency gun task force, so that they could begin to develop cooperation and share information. At that time, the Rochester community was desperately searching for a new way to address the crime and violence that was plaguing our community. Indeed, at that time, the homicide rate in Rochester was hovering around 70 homicides a year, which gave us the distinction of having the highest per capita homicide rate of any city in New York State.
In trying to find what our community could do to help to deal with the proliferation of illegal guns in our community and the homicide issue, Rochester’s Mayor at the time, together with the RPD Police Chief and the Monroe County District Attorney, met with then-FBI Director Louis Freeh, during a visit that Freeh was making to Buffalo to speak to the employees at the Department of Justice. Director Freeh mentioned a new program called Project Exile, that was started in Richmond, Virginia, that was having very positive results.
The Project Exile model relies upon cooperation between different state and local law enforcement agencies, and their federal counterparts. Fortunately, such cooperation already existed in Rochester in the form of a multi-agency gun task force. What the model also required, however, was significant cooperation between prosecutors at the local and state level in order to ensure that offenders were pursued by whichever prosecutor’s office could do so most effectively. Historically, this had been a difficult undertaking as prosecutors at the local and state level are elected, while federal prosecutors are appointed. Fortunately for the Rochester community, our then-Acting District Attorney, Howard Relin, and our then-United States Attorney, Denise O’Donnell, were willing to put their egos aside, and work together for what was best for our community. As a result, a decision was made to give Project Exile a try in Rochester.
Despite the interest and commitment that law enforcement had for Project Exile, one necessary ingredient was still missing. In order for Project Exile to succeed, community involvement and support was also required. At the time, one of the federal judges in Rochester invited me to come to a meeting in his chambers to see whether I, and the PAVE (Partners Against Violence) Initiative of which I was a part, would be willing to lend our support and assistance in bringing Project Exile to Rochester. So, on September 28th, 1998, at a press conference at our Federal Building in Downtown Rochester, we announced that we would be the second city in the country to implement Project Exile.
In the first year of its implementation, the homicide rate in Rochester went down to a 14-year low. According to statistics from the ATF and the RPD, over the past 18 years, hundreds of criminals have been exiled and thousands of illegal guns have been removed from the streets of our community, and the homicide rate, while it has fluctuated over the years, has never gone back to what it was before we began Project Exile. It is impossible to know what devastation those guns could have caused in our community if they, along with the criminals who possessed them, were allowed to remain on the streets.
Out of Project Exile grew Project TIPS, which stands for Trust, Information, Programs & Services. TIPS is a program where we bring different law enforcement agencies and social service agencies to a community selected by the RPD Chief and his command staff. The communities selected typically have a higher than normal amount of unsolved crime. The goal simply is to raise the level of trust between the people who live in those areas and the men and women of law enforcement who are charged with their public safety. Working with volunteers from the Criminal Justice Program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a group of people spend the first part of TIPS going door-to-door asking people simple quality of life questions so that people in the community can share their concerns and frustrations about the quality of life in that particular neighborhood. The meetings also provide the residents a vehicle through which they can anonymously share information about criminal activity in their neighborhood. They are able to do so without fear of reprisal as the authorities announce that we are visiting every single home in their neighborhood speaking with every resident possible.
After being surveyed, residents are invited to an area which has previously been established as a staging area for various law enforcement agencies, the fire department, and various social service agencies. A neighborhood cookout is also held with everyone being invited and all food donated by TOPS Supermarket. TIPS further provides a way for children in the community to interact with representatives from law enforcement and the fire department in a collegial and non-threatening environment. The TIPS Program, which we have conducted every summer for the last eleven years, has proven to be very popular and extremely successful.
Another program that grew from Project Exile is The Rochester Youth Violence Partnership (RYVP), which is a hospital-based violence intervention program that targets trauma victims under the age of 18 when they present for medical care following a knife or gun injury. This was started by Dr. Gestring and the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Project Exile is a model for law enforcement cooperation around the country, and I am proud to have served as the Chair of the Project Exile Advisory Board since its implementation. I am even more proud that every month for nearly two decades, members of law enforcement, government and social service agencies, clergy, and non-government organizations—those who comprise the Project Exile Board—have gathered at the Federal Building for a single, unifying purpose. That purpose is to find new and innovative ways to keep our community safe and a good place to work and raise a family. I am happy to report that nearly twenty years since its start, Project Exile continues to work for Rochester.