Without witness cooperation, Buffalo police still struggle to solve homicides - The Buffalo News

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Without witness cooperation, Buffalo police still struggle to solve homicides

The majority of Buffalo's homicides last year, as in previous years, remain unsolved.

Police solved nine of the year's 42 homicides, plus 10 others from previous years. Most of the unsolved homicides are classified as gang- and drug-related.

"Unfortunately, the gang subculture is against cooperation with the police," said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards.

As a result, the Police Department's homicide clearance rate remained low, although several percentage points higher than in 2016, when the department investigated 44 killings.

Instead of cooperating with police, gang members opt for their own retribution.

Nineteen of last year's homicides were classified as "gang/drug" related and only one was solved. In 2016, there were 21 gang- and drug-connected killings. And again, only one was solved.

For the other types of homicides, there is generally no threat of "snitches get stitches." In domestic and feud killings, for example, witnesses are often willing to help police.

"The number one problem we face with gang and drug homicide cases is to get people to come forward," said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn. "It's really tough."

Excluding gang- and drug-related killings, the city's clearance rate for last year would be 87 percent, well above the national clearance rate average of 59 percent, police officials say.

But other cities have gang-related killings, too, and the department is not making excuses for its clearance rate, Richards said.  Investigators continue to try to crack the code of silence among gang members by reaching out on a number of fronts to create closer ties with the community.

But gang members and drug dealers are not the only ones who refuse to cooperate with police. Citizens who witness the bloodshed are often reluctant to cooperate.

Why?

Fear of retribution, said Leonard Lane, president of a Buffalo group called Fathers Armed Together Help Education Restore and Save, or FATHERS.

"It's not just here, the fear is across the country, anywhere there is gang activity," Lane said. "Someone could see someone talking to a police officer and that can get out."

Trust required

Citizens need to take a leap of faith and confidentially share with police the information they may have on homicides, Lane said. If they are fearful, he said, they can confide in community leaders who will take the information to police.

"The police are trustworthy, but if an individual feels more comfortable, they can contact members of the Buffalo Peacemakers or Buffalo FATHERS," said Lane, a retired city firefighter and the founder of FATHERS.

The Rev. James E. Giles of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries says gangs rarely seek revenge against individuals outside of their circles who cooperate with police.

"Even gang members are not going to kill ordinary citizens who will come up and testify. Gangs are not in the practice of doing that," Giles said. "On the other hand, they will hurt someone in the game. Those people are considered snitches. You can't rat on someone who is in the game when you're still in the game."

Flynn does not disagree with Giles. Though the DA has no empirical data to prove Giles' assessment, he said it is rare that crimes of retribution occur against witnesses who are not involved in gangs.

"My office will go to great lengths to keep all potential witnesses safe," Flynn said.

In building trust, police have expanded their outreach in less formal ways that go beyond their monthly community meetings in the city's five police districts, Richards said.

"We're doing cookouts and bicycle giveaways and there's a new mentoring program called 'Bigs in Blue,' which involves police officers volunteering as Big Brothers and Big Sisters," Richards said. "We want people to see police as a reflection of the citizens they serve and we are making inroads with gaining the confidence of the community."

Flynn says he has assigned a "community liaison attorney" to work with the Buffalo Police and community groups.

"This is to build trust and relationships between my office and the community," he said. "We also joined the bike giveaway program last summer and our office helped serve turkey dinners throughout the month of November at various housing projects."

When citizens come forward and work with police, the results are positive, said Colleen Curtin Gable, chief of the DA's homicide bureau.

"That goes a long way in solving and successfully prosecuting cases that otherwise would not get solved," Curtin Gable said.

'A ripple effect'

Community nonviolence advocates say efforts need to go beyond persuading citizens to cooperate. The lesson that violence is unacceptable, Lane said, needs to be taught at an early age to prevent bloodshed.

"We work with schoolchildren. We tell them that when you pull that trigger, you impact not only the person that you shoot or kill, but their family, their neighborhood and sometimes an entire city," Lane said. "Violence has a ripple effect."

Buffalo FATHERS promotes that message not only through education but by conducting toy gun exchanges.

"We want to get those kinds of toys out of the hands of children so that they don't feel comfortable with them," Lane said. "We exchange the toy guns, knives and swords for basketballs, footballs, books and board games."

Just before the holidays, he collected some 50 toy guns.

On city streets last year,  police confiscated close to 700 guns, on top of the 840 removed by officers in 2016.

Numbers show reductions

Overall violent crimes – homicide, robbery, rape and other assaults – decreased 10 percent last year. There were approximately 2,500 violent crimes compared to the previous year's 2,764.

There was also a substantial reduction in the number of shootings that resulted in injuries or death. The most recent 2017 figures listed 198 shootings, representing a 24 percent drop from the 258 shootings in 2016.

Not counted in the official Buffalo Police Department tally of homicides in 2017 are the deaths of Wardel Davis and Jose Hernandez-Rossy. Davis died while he was being taken into custody by two Buffalo police officers on Feb. 7. Autopsies showed Davis died of an acute asthma attack exacerbated by struggling with the Officers Todd McAlister and Nicholas Parisi who were trying to handcuff him on Hoyt Street. The state Attorney General's Office concluded there was no evidence to file criminal charges against the officers.

The AG's office is still investigating the May 7 death of Hernandez-Rossy, who was shot to death by Officer Justin Tedesco after he had wrestled with another officer, Joseph Acquino, inside of Hernandez-Rossy's car when the officers pulled him over on Garfield Avenue. Acquino suffered a severe injury to his ear, which police initially thought was caused by a gunshot. No gun was ever found and police sources said it was possible the officer was injured when the car crashed into the side of a house and the airbag deployed.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda says that when reductions in burglaries and other property crimes are combined with the drop in violent crimes, there has been a nearly 40 percent decrease in overall crime since 2005.

"I attribute a lot of that decrease to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of the Buffalo Police Department and Mayor (Byron W.) Brown, who gives us the resources to get the job done," Derenda said.

The police deserve credit for going after individuals who are known for their violent ways and putting them behind bars, Giles said.

"Law enforcement has done a pretty good job of eliminating the shot callers, the ones that keep up the violence," said Giles, who is also a leader in the Buffalo Peacemakers. "But it is no single thing. It is all of us working together. We are working with a lot of the gang members and they are trying to change their lives."

Improving the economy, providing job skills training and encouraging high school dropouts to earn general equivalency diplomas are also part of the equation in reducing violence, according to Murray Holman, executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition and another leader in the Peacemakers.

Working with youth

Visits to the homes of young people who have been convicted of gun and robbery charges when they are no longer incarcerated has become a regular practice under funding from a state grant known as Gun Involved Violence Elimination.

"We provide them with opportunities to get a GED or get them in apprenticeship programs like construction and working with Habitat for Humanity," Holman said.

But Giles says the challenge is to make sure the improving economy results in "jobs trickling down into the inner city."

The home visits, Holman added, include Buffalo police and Erie County probation officers and are not limited to young people with criminal records.

"We are also involved with those who are under the radar. They are the ones whose names keep popping up when incidents happen," Holman said. "We try to be proactive and talk to the parents to change the young person's mindset."

There's also mentoring.

"I have four or five young people who call me on a daily basis to check in. I want to see how they are doing and what they need help with," Holman said.

Stop the Violence, Holman said, also maintains a presence on the streets providing schoolchildren with "safe passage on their way home from school" when they are more likely to be harassed by gang members.

Collaboration efforts between police and citizens, Derenda said, is an important aspect in reducing violence.

"We continue to work with the community to make Buffalo even safer tomorrow than it is today," the commissioner said.

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