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BGM mayor says more funding is key to reducing gun crime

NEW YORK NOW - Reducing gun crime in New York’s cities is going to take a deeper financial investment from the state, and more collaboration between law enforcement across all levels, mayors of upstate cities told members of the State Senate Wednesday.

While gun crime has been on the uptick during the pandemic, the mayors said they have the tools to address it, but lack the funding to expand those efforts.

“There are programs out there that are working. Funding is obviously a challenge,” said Pouhgkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison. “I do believe that many of the things are in place, they just need additional resources to expand it.”

Rolison and a handful of other mayors from upstate cities were at the state capitol in Albany Wednesday to testify at a public hearing on the development of small and mid-sized cities in New York.

The hearing was the result of an eight-city tour organized over the last two months by Sen. Jeremy Cooney, a Democrat from Rochester who chairs the Cities 2 Committee in the Senate.

Cooney is no stranger to the rise in gun violence. Rochester hasn’t been immune to the statewide increase throughout the pandemic. There have been 75 homicides in Rochester this year alone, Cooney said.

“We are struggling with a record amount of violence in our community,” Cooney told the mayors at the hearing. “It’s very disheartening to see the impact that this violence has had on the citizens of Rochester.”

Rolison was joined by Troy Mayor Patrick Madden and Binghamton Mayor Richard David, who’s also the current president of the New York Conference of Mayors. Peter Baynes, the group’s executive director, also joined the panel.

Each of the three mayors testified to the impact gun violence has had on their community during the pandemic and said they’ve made progress, but need more funding to make a larger dent in the problem.

David said the city of Binghamton has leveraged $30 million in grant funding from the state to invest in new housing opportunities, including a revamp of an entire street in the city that was once home to high rates of crime.

“That street, it was Crandall St., at one time had the highest volume of police calls in any given year,” David said. “Now, it’s one of the quietest, nicest, safest streets in that area.”

But, for the most part, the mayors touted programs designed to curb gun violence, and how they’ve helped divert teenagers and young adults from engaging in crime.

At a time when calls to reduce funding for law enforcement are being considered statewide, David said it would be more effective to invest in police. Not to patrol the streets, he said, but to have officers available to build relationships with the community.

“That’s how we continue to build trust with the community,” David said. “It means getting out of your cars and embracing bike patrols, and food patrols, and creating opportunities where police don’t only interact with kids because of a call, or a response.”

Rolison, for his part, said programs designed to deter gun violence have been effective, but that the reach of that strategy could widen with more funding from the state.

New York offers funding for certain gun violence prevention programs, like the Gun Involved Violence Elimination Initiative, better known as GIVE, and SNUG, which is run by the state but executed at the local level.

Rolison said they’ve used funding from the GIVE program to create an anti-gang curriculum in the city’s schools.

“We believe that is successful,” Rolison said. “We know that the individuals who’ve gone through that program have not been involved in gang activity.”

Some programs are funded entirely by the state, but others are delivered through a combination of local and state resources. That means localities have to shell out if they want a strong response to the rise in crime.

But the mayors also said the state could take steps to make more funding available. For one, they said, the state could allow municipalities to hold onto more of their sales tax revenue. But more direct aid could also be set aside for municipalities, they said.

Baynes said the state could increase what’s called AIM funding, which is essentially funds earmarked for localities in the state budget. But he said the state could also add a new layer of additional funding to build on what they receive in AIM.

“We want to keep AIM as a base source of funding and then create a new program on top of it, or wrap around a new name to the two components,” Baynes said. “There needs to be a national formula to how it’s allocated.”

The rise in crime has been attributed to several factors, like the state’s sour economy throughout the pandemic. But some have blamed the increase on New York’s new laws on cash bail that were implemented at the start of last year.

Those laws eliminated the option of cash bail for most low-level and nonviolent charges. Lawmakers amended the statute, allowing some of those charges to become bail-eligible, but critics have said those changes were inconsequential.

Sen. Joe Griffo, a Republican from Utica, asked the mayors at the hearing if they thought the new bail reform laws were having an impact on the rate of crime in their communities.

David, a Republican, said that’s been the case in the city of Binghamton. The city’s police chief, he said, has identified areas of risk related to certain charges that are no longer bail-eligible, like drug-related arrests.

“It is much harder to protect our communities due to the handcuffs that are being put on judges, district attorneys, and police officers who are on the front line,” David said. “I do think it would behoove the Legislature to take a look at and revisit some of the modifications.”

That’s likely to happen during next year’s legislative session, with Democrats under pressure to make changes to the laws. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Albany in January.