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Mark Virginia. Jermaine Vayton. Peter Kinnin.

All three in their 20s or 30s. All three now dead. The circumstances varied greatly. But Virginia, Vayton and Kinnin died either in police custody or in confrontations with officers this year.

Virginia was choked to death in a violent struggle with Buffalo police March 14.

Vayton, armed with a .50-caliber handgun, died from a spinal-cord injury suffered when he fell from the top of a fence while city police chased him June 3.

Kinnin was shot to death by Town of Tonawanda police after slashing an officer three times with a knife on Oct. 17.

Three families mourn. Seven police officers -- some now cleared of any misconduct -- have had their professional integrity publicly questioned. One Buffalo lieutenant was indicted. A region is left to wonder what, if anything, has gone wrong with police-community relations.

"I think these cases have fueled public suspicions of police misconduct," said Glenn E. Murray, an attorney who has represented several citizens in police-brutality claims.

The three cases also have led police to believe that an aggressive police response will leave them second-guessed and exposed to criminal or civic liability, Murray added.

There are plenty of theories about why such incidents occur.

Fear, on both sides, may be one answer. Others say the three incidents reflect the increasing violence in society.

Or the lack of respect for authorities. And some -- including one top local law-enforcement official who didn't want to be interviewed for this story -- claim there's nothing new here at all.

Still, there's clearly a feeling -- more in some areas than others -- that police and some of the people they're sworn to protect distrust each other.

"You're building bigger walls between the public and the police officer," said retired Buffalo Lt. William J. McLean, former commander of the Buffalo Police Academy. "We have to find ways to pierce those walls."

Fear keeps those walls standing.

"I think both the police officer and the person in custody often feel that they're in fatal danger from the other," Murray said. "The cop is afraid of a knife or a gun or a hypodermic needle, and the person in custody is afraid that when the situation turns confrontational, he is going to be a victim of police misconduct."

That two-way fear can breed rash acts, like the ones that resulted in the three deaths.

The three deaths also strengthened the lobbying efforts of a small group of Buffalo residents, the Concerned Citizens Against Police Abuse.

"We need to question the reaction of police when they're responding to a call," said Loretta Renford, a founder of the group. "We also need to question the reports we get from the police about how justified they were in what they did."

Ms. Renford believes Mark Virginia probably was scared when his van was pulled over on Delaware Avenue. And Jermaine Vayton must have been scared when police chased him.

"But it's a two-way street," she added. "The police have to admit that they're scared, too."

Police claim that the use of deadly force across the country has declined at the same time that they're being asked to deal with a more heavily armed, violent and mentally unstable group of suspects. Officers know that their every move will be scrutinized, by the media, by citizen groups screaming about police brutality and by lawyers ready to pounce on any misconduct.

Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske presented a spirited defense of his officers.

"I know of six to eight circumstances since I've been commissioner when officers used considerable restraint and even risked their lives in armed confrontations," Kerlikowske said. "They could have used deadly force and been justified, but they didn't.

"We're having more officer encounters with armed individuals, some suffering from a mental disorder or a drug or alcohol problem," Kerlikowske said.

He gave two recent examples:

On Sept. 19, a woman suffering from depression barricaded herself and her 3-year-old daughter inside her Burgard Place home for about two hours, smashing windows with a hatchet before eventually surrendering to police.

A week earlier, a despondent man fired a shotgun blast when he thought police were not taking him seriously during a lengthy standoff on Jewett Parkway.

Kerlikowske believes such incidents are related to the ongoing cutbacks in services for the mentally ill and substance abusers.

"When the social safety net breaks down, mostly because of lack of funding or support, police are put in the impossible position of dealing with situations in which they don't have the (proper) expertise," Kerlikowske said.

James J. Gehen, a retired Buffalo police officer from West Seneca, recently wrote about the challenge facing an officer when a suspect resists arrest.

"A police officer has to make crucial, direct and responsible moves against an unknown agenda, with questions whirling around in his mind," Gehen stated. "Why the resistance? Is there a hidden weapon? Are drugs involved? Is this suspect mentally sound at this time? Am I safe?"

An argument can be made that the fear of lawsuits, criminal charges and publicity can handcuff police in carrying out their job.

"I think an officer should try as much as possible to block it out and do the job he's trained to do," said McLean. "But I don't think they (always) do that. I think they sometimes become super-cautious, which may be dangerous to them. They may let a situation get out of hand, because they're afraid to make an aggressive move."

Both Ms. Renford and Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, regional director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether police receive adequate training. Police officials say that training academies stress when -- and when not -- to use deadly force.

Concerned Citizens and the civil liberties group also use these cases to lobby for a citizen-review board, with its own independent investigators. But Kerlikowske replied that the elements of the three cases are so different that it's tough to find a common thread among them.

He sees no trend here.

"We use far less deadly physical force in American policing than we did 20 years ago," he said. "We're far more restrictive on the use of deadly and non-deadly force."

Ms. Mahoney said that's not good enough.

"Three people are dead who shouldn't be," she said. "What is it that caused three people to be killed? This doesn't give people much confidence in our police."

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