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Will offering more reward money help Buffalo solve more homicides?

Buffalo lags the national average for solving homicides, clearing barely more than half of 246 killings in the past five years, and now police and prosecutors say it might take more money to boost the clearance rate.

The money would pay for bigger rewards to entice witnesses to come forward with information.

"Increased witness cooperation is the key to a lot of these unsolved homicides, and if there was an increase in reward money, it could have an additional impact," said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said. "I am open to discussing this with all interested parties as to what that amount could be."

Three of Buffalo's 44 homicides from last year were solved as a result of individuals who provided confidential information to Buffalo Crime Stoppers. Each individual received a $2,500 reward.

"Unfortunately, sometimes it takes money as an incentive to get people to come forward," said Kevin Hoffman, chairman of Buffalo Crime Stoppers, which relies mostly on private donations.

Flynn plans to provide money to Crime Stoppers from his office's asset forfeiture fund in the coming weeks.

The focus on money comes as Buffalo police work to improve their homicide clearance rate. The city's 52 percent clearance rate over five years trails the national rate of 63 percent.

In 2014, one of the worst years for solving city homicides, police solved only 17 of 62 homicides for a 27 percent clearance rate.

A year later, the rate rebounded to 84 percent. Detectives solved 36 of 43 cases in 2015, including numerous homicides they had been investigating for years.

Most of the 118 unsolved homicides from the last five years are classified as gang- and drug-related, the hardest killings to solve. Gang members often seek their own revenge, fueling the cycle of violence. Investigators say they often have "strong suspects" in those cases, but cannot make arrests because they lack the high standard of proof required in homicide cases.

"The thing is that in some departments where they have gang homicides, they still have high clearance rates," said University of Maryland criminologist Charles F. Wellford.

One such city is Richmond, Va.

Richmond, with 223,170 residents, has an 82 percent homicide clearance rate over five years, 30 percentage points higher than Buffalo, a city of 256,908.

Richmond police point to several factors as keys to solving homicides: the assignments given to homicide detectives, how command posts are used in neighborhoods and involving social workers and clergy as detectives canvass an area for witnesses.

"It is a culmination of everything," said Capt. James J. Laino, who supervises a division of the Richmond Police Department that includes the homicide unit. "A big part is what the uniformed officers do prior to the incident, just building that trust by being within that community."

 

Cooperation the key

Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards says increasing the amount of reward money could make a difference in encouraging cooperation.

"Witness cooperation can be our biggest asset and our biggest hurdle," he said.

And even if the rewards increase - no one is saying publicly by how much - Flynn says he does not expect gang members to start cooperating.

"We're looking at individuals with no connections to the homicides, other than happening to witness the killing," he said.

They may be more inclined to help with the promise of increased reward money, he said.

The DA says he is looking at shifting thousands of dollars to Buffalo Crime Stoppers from his office's asset forfeiture fund. Money for that comes from cash confiscated from criminals and the sale of properties they purchased with proceeds from drug sales and other illegal enterprises.

Flynn said his office also has access to state funds for witness protection, which would reassure witnesses who may hesitate in coming forward with information for fear of violating the street code of "snitches get stitches."

"We have never been turned down whenever we have needed funds for witness protection," he said. "And no one who has received witness protection from our office has ever been harmed."

In the last five years, the DA's office has received $25,000 for witness protection, which has been spent on temporary housing and relocating individuals out of the area.

Strengthened ties in Richmond

The homicide bureau in Richmond is the same size as Buffalo's.

There are four homicide teams consisting of four detectives and a supervising detective sergeant. But unlike Buffalo's teams, Richmond homicide detectives focus almost exclusively on homicides.

In Buffalo, homicide detectives investigate all non-fatal shootings, fatal drug overdoses, suicides, infant deaths, fatal industrial accidents, fire deaths, drownings and unattended deaths. Last year they responded to 539 cases, including 44 homicides.

Richmond, in a restructuring of its major crimes division a number of years ago, established two other detective teams to handle serious assaults, including non-fatal shootings.

"The thought behind that was to allow the homicide teams to concentrate on homicides," said Laino, the police captain in Richmond.

Richards, the chief of detectives in Buffalo, said there are good reasons for homicide detectives to investigate non-fatal shootings. Information gleaned by the detectives can provide leads on previous homicides and shooter arrests can result in removing a potential killer from the streets, given that the individual has demonstrated a willingness to use deadly force. There were 228 non-fatal shootings last year in Buffalo.

Another difference between Buffalo and Richmond is the setting up of a temporary command post at the scene of a homicide.

"It's a modified RV type vehicle that we use and it is manned by an officer for the next 48 hours," Laino said. "It builds trust and brings some calm to the community if there was a threat of retaliation."

Buffalo does not set up physical command posts.

Homicide detectives in both cities return to the crime scene multiple times and distribute flyers giving details of the homicide and seeking information from residents. But Richmond police, in their third return, are joined by a city social worker, a representative from a non-profit agency that assists children and faith leaders to offer services to residents who have been impacted by the violence.

Laino says that is done to strengthen ties with the community.

Cooperation from the community, he added, starts long before any killing. To encourage that, Laino said police maintain a high profile with the department's command staff conducting monthly walks in different neighborhoods and precinct supervisors doing the same on a more frequent basis.

Similar outreaches occur in Buffalo. Police brass and Mayor Byron W. Brown sometimes canvass neighborhoods after a homicide, police district officials hold monthly meetings with citizen groups and community policing officers regularly work with residents to solve problems.

But Richmond's approach has consistently resulted in clearance rates that have exceeded the national average of about 65 percent, though it fluctuates from year to year. Despite its impressive record, Richmond has had setbacks.

In 2016, charges against eight murder suspects were later dropped by prosecutors. Laino said new charges may be placed against the suspects in the future and that his detectives continue to work closely with prosecutors.

Richards pointed out that Capt. Ronald E. Jentz, commander of Buffalo's homicide squad, and homicide detectives also work closely with assistant district attorneys and that, as a result, it is extremely rare when a homicide charge is dropped.

While Richmond and Buffalo work at establishing and maintaining community ties in the hopes of preventing violence, each city has experienced periodic spikes in murders. Earlier this month in Richmond, there were nine deadly shootings in eight days. Richmond officials urged witnesses to come forward – a plea that is often made in Buffalo.

Buffalo cases not forgotten

So far this year, there have been 32 homicides with 10 of them solved for a 31 percent clearance rate.

Detectives continue to investigate the unsolved cases as well as other cases from previous years so long as there are leads to pursue. When there are none, the files are turned over to the homicide bureau's two-detective cold case unit. The same happens in Richmond, which also has two cold case detectives.

Detectives here follow numerous investigative "best practices" utilized not only in Richmond but by homicide investigators throughout the country. They include the immediate securing of the crime scene, establishing a chain of command, seeking surveillance video, whether public or private, and working with crime lab analyst who examine the collected evidence.

Eric L. Piza, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says the overall emphasis in recent decades among law enforcement agencies has been on crime prevention strategies.

"This is for good reason. Preventing crime is of the utmost importance to police. However, solving a crime once it happens is also important, and something that crime victims and their families rightfully expect to happen," Piza said.

Federal law enforcement grants, he said, encourage crime prevention, but it may be time for a shift in direction. Piza suggested more emphasis be put on ways to improve homicide clearance rates. That could happen through generating scientific evidence of what works.

"Frankly, we don’t know as much about this topic as we should," Piza said.

Wellford, the University of Maryland criminologist, said police department commanders must send a strong message that solving homicides is a top priority and "take concrete steps to demonstrate this."

Building trust between citizens and police, he said, will also result in greater cooperation in clearing homicides.

Richards said his detectives are working hard to clear cases and pointed out that the annual homicide clearance rate does not always reflect homicides that are indirectly cleared in broader cases. He is referring to what often occurs when the U.S. Attorney's Office files federal charges to take down violent street gangs responsible for numerous homicides.

No one person may be charged with murder, but the individuals often play a collective role in a slaying and end up convicted and behind bars on other charges, Richards explained.

As for showing the community that police are committed to solving homicides, the chief said no unsolved murder case is ever closed.

He cited a 34-year-old cold case that ended earlier this month when Saundra Adams pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

New DNA evidence proved she used neckties to strangle Edmund Schreiber, a 92-year-old World War I veteran and Purple Heart recipient, during a break-in on June 23, 1983, at his Hastings Avenue home.

"There is no statute of limitation for murder," Richards said. "The goal is always a clearance rate of 100 percent and the cases that are not solved in the same calendar year are never, ever forgotten."

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