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 on 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 combating 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 his gun into Rochester, they needed the help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. This need resulted in the RPD and the ATF forming a multiagency gun taskforce, 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 Freeh was making to Buffalo to speak to the employees at the Department of Justice. Freeh mentioned a new program called Project Exile that was started in Richmond, Va., 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 multiagency 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-U.S. 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. 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 Everywhere) Initiative of which I was a part, would be willing to lend our support and assistance in bringing Project Exile to Rochester. So, on Sept. 28, 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 the project’s 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. 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.
Project Exile is a model for law enforcement cooperation around the country, and I am proud to have served as the chairman 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.
Gary Mervis is chairman of the Rochester Project Exile Advisory Board.
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