Mount Vernon homicide rate soars in 2012 as mayor vows change
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Growing up in the Bronx, Jemini Davis thought an escape to a small city like Mount Vernon meant an escape from the violence of the streets.
He was wrong.
Mount Vernon was sent reeling by gunfire in 2012, with a total of 10 murders, two more than in the past two years combined. Only two of the killings have led to arrests. When the murders are included, there were more than 20 shootings in the city in 2012.
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The violence has left community activists, clergy members and city leaders scrambling for answers in a city where the challenges range from the cosmetic -- fixing broken streetlights, for example, to the spiritual -- coping with the deep sense of hopelessness that many young Hispanic and African-American men feel.
Davis moved to Mount Vernon two years ago. Now an 18-year-old senior at Mandela High School, he said the violence in Mount Vernon puts him under constant stress. He sticks with friends who don't walk the streets, preferring to hang out at one another's houses.
"You can't go outside and walk around without somebody trying to threaten you or something," he said. "In the Bronx, there is violence and stuff, but in Mount Vernon ... it's kind of worse."
Dennis Hanratty, a 60-year-old community activist and leader of Mount Vernon United Tenants, said 2012 was the worst in memory for bloodshed.
"It's as bad as I've seen it," said Hanratty, who has lived in the city his entire life.
In a recent interview with Newsday, Mayor Ernie Davis said that he blames some of the violence in his city of 67,000 on hopelessness. Davis is well aware that neighboring communities are less violent. The 10 slayings in Mount Vernon are double the number seen in 2012 in Yonkers, the city's much larger neighbor, with a population of nearly 200,000.
"The same people that shoot each other in Mount Vernon won't shoot each other elsewhere," Davis said. He was mayor of Mount Vernon from 1996 to 2008, replaced by Clinton Young for one term, then elected again in 2011. "It's expectations. It's a lack of hope. The city has got to expect to succeed."
Unemployment is at 9.2 percent in Mount Vernon, higher than the 7.9 percent rate for the state, and much higher than the 6.7 percent rate for all of Westchester County, according to the state Department of Labor. More to Davis' point, the poverty rate in the city is 14 percent, well above Westchester County's rate of 8.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city's population is 77 African-American or Latino, the Census Bureau says.
CRITICISM OF MAYOR'S APPROACH
To address the violence problem, Davis said he plans to reform the 188-member police force by adding a major crimes squad. He said the financially strapped city does not need to hire more police officers. Rather, he said, the department needs to be retrained to interact more effectively with the community. He said he -- not Police Commissioner Carl Bell -- would be undertaking that task.
Davis declined to discuss his opinion of Bell's performance. Bell was appointed commissioner by Young.
"I'm not going to get into that stuff," Davis said. "I will tell you I do not plan to be unsuccessful as a mayor. We are going to get the word out that we're going to protect you."
Bell did not return calls seeking comment. The head of the Mount Vernon Police Benevolent Association also did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Police Chief John Roland.
City Council member Richard Thomas, who is chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, blames Davis for the upward trend in street violence, saying the mayor has exerted too much control over the police department's daily operations.
"When you have the leadership meddling in the management of the Police Department, how can they do their work?" Thomas said. "The mayor is not a police officer."
Thomas said that Bell can't make a decision without consulting the mayor. He said that Davis has blocked efforts to add community policing -- putting more cops on foot patrol instead of in patrol cars.
"Public safety isn't high on his list," Thomas said of the mayor.
Davis countered that his hands-on approach to law enforcement efforts shows how much emphasis he places on public safety. He said authorities know where the centers of violence are in the city and that the guns and drugs that fuel the problem come from outside the city, what Davis calls an "unseen hand," preying on hopelessness.
"We know Mount Vernon Avenue is a hotbed of problems," he said. "People think they can get away with things in Mount Vernon that they wouldn't even try once they hit the city line in Pelham."
The city's homicide problem reached an apex in April, when four people were fatally shot in separate incidents. Gunfire was the cause of death in eight of the homicides -- which are unrelated to one another, officials said. There was a stabbing death as well, and a newborn baby suffocated. Most of the crimes remain unsolved.
"These incidents are easily solved, so why aren't they?" Davis said.
Asked whether the Mount Vernon Police Department might lack specialized expertise to deal with violent crime, Davis disagreed.
"I could run that Police Department," he said. "You don't have to be a police officer to run that Police Department."
CLERGY WANT PROGRAMS FOR KIDS
Davis met recently with several of the city's most prominent clergy members to address the violence. He declined to discuss the meeting in detail. He said the smaller storefront churches that have sprung up in the city in the past few years might provide good opportunities to reach young people and solve some of the city's problems.
The Rev. Carol Fryer, a minister at United Lutheran Church who also works at the Wartburg Adult Care Community in the city, said everyone on her staff talks about the lack of options for young people in Mount Vernon.
"There isn't enough activity for youths to do, to keep them involved in things that are good," she said. Simple measures like fixing broken streetlights and addressing blighted properties in the city might help change the outlook for young people, Fryer said.
"Mount Vernon could be taken care of better," she said.
Community activist Hanratty said the city's young men often see no future for themselves.
"There's a level of desperation for a lot of young people who come up and just don't see hope," he said.
Young people in the city are critical.
Ronnel Goodman, 25, an actor who has lived in Mount Vernon his whole life, said he recently looked at his high school yearbook and counted classmates who have been killed in the past few years.
"Everybody chooses the route that's meant for them, which is unfortunate," he said. "As far as a lot of homicides and stuff going on in the city, I don't feel like the sense of urgency has been put on as it needs to be. Like with law enforcement. I don't feel like they've been as thorough as they could have been."
Davis has promised that will change.
"I have every confidence that when I leave, this city will be much better off than when I came," he said. "I know I have to get the people to do it."
Staff writer Christian Wade contributed to this report.