As Elmira grapples with crime, will police's plan to increase presence be the solution?
- The Chemung County Sheriff's Office obtained a $100,000 federal grant for targeted patrols in problem areas.
- Police are looking to increase presence on Elmira's Eastside, where the number of reported shootings has more than doubled since last year.
- Some residents are wary about talking to police about crime for fear of retribution.
George Wilson has lived on Elmira's Eastside his entire life, and in his current residence on Linden Place for 16 years.
Wilson said as longtime residents moved out over the years, a combination of absentee landlords and questionable tenants has led to deteriorating conditions and an increase in crime.
So when Wilson discovered a fresh bullet hole in his parked pickup truck one day recently, he wasn't surprised or alarmed.
But Wilson did something he said other residents are reluctant to do — he called the police.
"If you aren't doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?" Wilson, 66, said about talking to the police. "They should form a neighborhood watch, get people to tell you stuff. That doesn't mean you have to stand in a window with a pair of binoculars. But it puts people on alert. That's how you get a good neighborhood.
"Police can't do it all. A lot of people who live here don't care. They're temporary."
The Elmira Police Department and Chemung County Sheriff's Department are also focused on combating crime in the city. Although their tactic of increasing their presence in the affected neighborhoods also comes at a time many are calling for police reform, and redirecting money to mental health treatment and response, or other community resources.
Residents are wary
Regular reports of shootings, drug deals and other criminal activity have residents on the Eastside and other neighborhoods on edge, and many of them are afraid to go to the police, either out of mistrust or fear of retribution.
Most of the shootings result in property damage only, but on Sept. 14, a man was killed in a home invasion robbery and shooting on Taylor Street.
Another person died following a shooting Sept. 23 in the 500 block of West Second Street.
Two people were reportedly injured when they shot at each other Sept. 28 in the 900 block of Lake Street, according to Elmira police.
Among the residents who live in constant fear is a woman in her 40s who lives on Lake Street and who declined to give her name because she doesn't want to face any backlash.
The woman, who said she has four children ages 5 to 27, said she plans to move out of the neighborhood because it isn't safe.
"I can't let my kids play outside. Someone could drop a drug bag and my kids could pick it up," she said. "I don't trust the neighborhood. It was a year ago that someone hit my living room with a bullet. Thank God we weren't in the living room. The hole is still there today. I have a pit bull. I don't leave home without her at night."
A majority of properties in Census Tract 7, which encompasses much of Elmira's Eastside, are rental units, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the 1,181 housing units in the tract, 121 are owner-occupied and 789 are renter-occupied, Census Bureau data indicates.
The remainder of the properties are likely vacant, Chemung County Planning Commissioner Nicolette Wagoner said.
Median household income in the tract is $13,682, according to the Census Bureau, and nearly a third of the residents don't have a high school diploma.
There are also businesses sprinkled throughout the area, and they are keeping a cautious eye out as well.
"We do towing for police and we deal firsthand with it and we see the problems," said Bryan Rinwalske, co-owner of Rinwalske Towing on Sullivan Street. "We're a 24-7 business. We're out and about all hours of the night and there's certainly a cause for concern."
The drug deals and eruptions of gunfire are also disturbing to Mark Franchi, who grew up on Elmira's Eastside but only this year started representing that area on the Elmira City Council.
"Elmira is a hub. We have everything coming from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and New York City, plus we have two big prisons," he said.
"I have a lot of constituents who want to work with me," Franchi said. "Younger people who have kids, they don't want their kids to get shot or run over during the course of a high speed chase."
Grant helps police increase presence
Many of those incidents were reported on the Eastside, and it's not a new trend.
Between January and August of 2019, police investigated 27 reports of gunfire in the City of Elmira, while that number was 47 during the same time frame in 2020, according to figures provided by the Elmira Police Department.
Reported shootings on the Eastside more than doubled year over year, from eight reported shootings in the first eight months of 2019 to 19 reports through August of this year.
In response, the Chemung County Sheriff's Office will use a $100,000 federal grant to increase policing in the area.
The recent rash of gunfire in and around Elmira isn't an aberration but more of a trend, said Sheriff Bill Schrom.
The county has applied for this grant money before without success, and approval couldn't have come at a better time, Schrom said.
"Given the significant constraints to many of the law enforcement budgets as a result of COVID-19, this funding will allow us to better collaborate with our law enforcement partners to combat these issues," he said.
"Through the utilization of this grant, we will be targeting high crime areas within the county, focusing on drug interdiction, hotel interdiction, human trafficking interdiction, warrant details, and other locations known for high crime or violent activity."
Details about where and how the money will be utilized still need to be worked out, according to Elmira Police Chief Joseph Kane.
There were also 19 shootings reported on the city's Southside in the first eight months of this year, compared with nine during the same time period in 2019.
Police officers investigating those crimes often encounter an invisible wall, Kane said.
"They don't want police involved. (Living with crime) is almost an acceptable way of life," Kane said.
"I think there's a barrier. People who support criminal behavior are the most vocal about police reform," he said. "We don't want people shooting at each other. We don't want rampant drug abuse. The majority of people agree with that."
More police or different thinking?
Franchi agrees with Kane that many people who don't support increased law enforcement presence in their neighborhoods are often the ones the police are looking for.
But such a blanket statement is not true, said Georgia Verdier, president of the Elmira-Corning Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Most people don't support eliminating or defunding the police, but do believe there needs to be significant changes in the law enforcement model, Verdier said.
"Many people are on the side of reform and reinvention, which is designed to promote transparency and accountability, also adding components to help ensure community safety," she said. "We believe health care workers should be added to the force to help address issues involving people who are apprehended with mental challenges, to help de-escalate situations.
"We are aware that funding becomes an issue," Verdier added. "However, we are experiencing a period in time when we need to think outside the box, therefore, need to explore new methods to improve safety and unity in the community."
Some people who live or work on Elmira's Eastside would be happy to see more patrol cars in their neighborhoods.
"I've been here 49 years. It's gotten worse," said Grover Wright, 82, who lives on Oak Street in Elmira. "That's the job (of the police) to check it out."
Sheri Hughey is director of the daycare program at Faith Temple Community Church of God in Christ on Standish Street.
"I feel a police presence in this neighborhood and I welcome it," she said. "We see them. They stop by. They are friendly to us. We haven't had any problems here but they have on the next block up."
Given the protests and calls for social justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, local Black leaders are cautious when talking about increased police presence.
But most people would probably welcome that change if it's done right, Verdier believes.
"I believe that people from all persuasions desire safe neighborhoods, therefore would be in favor of increased protection. However, they would prefer that the increased protection would bring safety, not increased violence," Verdier said.
"Therefore, there needs to be a meeting of the minds, that is, residents and the police getting to know and respect each other through community meetings," she said. "This would provide an opportunity for effective dialogue and feedback, thereby enhancing safety and unity in the community for all involved."
Schrom and Kane both strongly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd's death, and agree there need to be ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication between law enforcement and the communities they police.
If anything, Rinwalske would like to see more resources devoted to law enforcement, not less.
"I'm a big fan of law enforcement and what they do, certainly," he said. "They can only accomplish so much with what they're given. More law enforcement could make a difference in this area in my opinion."
Wilson, meanwhile, takes the challenges of living in his neighborhood in stride.
He isn't afraid to cooperate with the police and also puts his faith in a higher power.
"If your number isn't called, you aren't going anywhere," Wilson said. "I thank God for getting me this far."