The Buffalo homicide squad, the once-elite unit of investigators that was dismantled almost three years ago, will return in January with the prime goal of solving more homicide cases.
Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina made the announcement in police headquarters Friday. It was Diina's decision, based largely on the recommendations of a 10-member panel he appointed to study the issue.
"As we worked through the pros and cons, the decision was unanimous," Diina said. "Our main objective is to improve our solvability."
News that the homicide unit would return was greeted positively Friday by homicide detectives, police commanders, prosecutors, elected officials and community activists.
Detective Sgt. Philip Torre of the Major Crimes Unit said the new homicide unit will allow more time and manpower to focus on recanvassing neighborhoods for clues, reinterviewing suspects and witnesses and re-examining cold cases.
"I'm confident we can get the solvability up now," said Torre. "This is a formula for success."
The change comes just months after a public outcry by community activists, who expressed outrage at the department's low rate for solving homicide cases.
So far this year, Buffalo detectives have solved 24 of 48 murders -- a 50 percent clearance rate -- compared with a national rate of 64 percent. The department has solved as much as 80 percent of its homicides in previous years.
Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson expressed outrage over the low clearance rate during a news conference Sept. 12. In a meeting later in Common Council chambers, 150 people demanded to know why the police department no longer has a squad devoted exclusively to solving murders.
Last month, in a protest that drew about 250 people in front of City Hall, the Stop the Violence Coalition issued four demands, calling for a cold-case squad, a homicide squad, the use of more African-American officers to solve killings and Diina's ouster.
On Friday, Thompson said he's excited that the homicide squad has been reinstated but also urged the police department to "adequately staff" the unit, establish cash rewards for murder tips and be more vigilant at interviewing those people "standing around" at murder scenes.
"I think this is an extremely positive step if it's done the right way," he said. "I commend the commissioner for keeping an open ear to the public's concerns."
Diina's announcement reverses a change made under his leadership in February 2002, when the Homicide Bureau was folded into a new Major Crimes Unit that also investigated robberies, assaults and other serious crimes. That move was designed to improve efficiency, by sending more detectives to the scene of a serious crime.
"I wouldn't say it was a mistake," Diina said of the 2002 decision. "It didn't achieve the objectives we wanted. It was done for fiscal reasons. But not having individuals solely devoted to homicides diluted their efficiency and their focus."
Capt. Mark Morgan, commander of the current Major Crimes Unit under the Crimes Against Persons Bureau, said the unit was bogged down with investigating homicides and anywhere between 1,500 and 2,200 robberies each year.
"This is the right thing to do," he said. "People gave it their best shot, but it got to the point where we'd try to prioritize, but it's difficult to focus on homicides when you have 1,500 robberies to investigate, too."
Two former homicide commanders on the 10-member panel, Richard Donovan and Joseph Riga, were strong supporters of re-establishing a homicide squad, and they praised Diina for reinstating it.
Riga and Donovan recalled the days of the specialized homicide unit, laced with pride, history and tradition, where the turnover was low, where any vacancy was a coveted spot and where rookie homicide detectives learned at the knee of the seasoned pros.
"Those guys taught me," Donovan said. "They knew what to do at a homicide. That's all they did."
"To be a good homicide investigator, you really have to have a desire to do that kind of work," Riga added. "It's the ultimate challenge. It's very complicated and complex."
With some details still to be negotiated with union officials, Diina's plan calls for the new homicide squad to investigate all suspicious deaths and any shootings, stabbings or serious beatings that may be gang-related. The squad will consist of one lieutenant, four detective sergeants and 16 detectives.
The separate Major Case Squad will investigate other, less serious assaults, kidnappings, home invasions and robberies that occur on their shift.
Top police officials said officers will bid on jobs in the new units based on seniority and under the rules of the police contract.
"Hopefully, people will gravitate to the homicide unit who want to be there," Diina said. "When we merged the units, there may have been people who didn't want to be investigating homicides. Now, it will be easier to hold them accountable when they have a specific responsibility."
Buffalo resident Sarah Underwood, who has lost two family members to murder, praised the move back to a homicide unit but urged the department to solve more cold cases.
On Feb. 6, 1993, her son, John Underwood Sr., 34, was found shot to death in an apartment on Johnson Street. This year, her grandson, John Underwood Jr., 20, was gunned down as he walked along Strauss Street on June 27.
No one has been arrested in either killing.
"These killers are just walking the streets, and it seems like the police have just forgotten about it," Underwood said. "You couldn't imagine how devastating it is to lay awake at night and think about the killers. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."