Although crime on Buffalo streets has increased sharply, most of the city's 14 police stations usually are so understaffed that officers have little time to patrol the neighborhoods as a deterrent to robbers, youth gangs and drug dealers.
Harried officers -- notably those in inner-city precincts -- constantly run from husband-wife disputes to bar fights to burglaries in progress. Officers in some precincts have little time to worry about non-emergency complaints, and some calls simply never get answered.
"If there is no police coming when you make a call, what good is it?" asked Mark Robson. "You see somebody dealing dope out of a car in front of your house, you call police, and it takes them 45 minutes to get there. By that time, they're long gone."
Robson knows from experience. As he walked home last year carrying groceries, a thief put a gun to his ear and robbed him at the corner of Sycamore and Fillmore. Police were called -- twice -- and they responded 45 minutes later, he said, though the Genesee and Fillmore precinct stations are only a few blocks away.
It is not just a matter of too few officers assigned to the precincts.
In addition, dozens of officers routinely abuse the Police Department's liberal sick-leave policy, calling in sick when they are not ill. In some precincts, where seven officers are normally scheduled for a night shift, only two or three officers may report for duty on a given night, records show.
"They're using (sick leave) as personal leave days," explained Inspector James Mahoney, head of the Internal Affairs Division Mahoney. "In many cases, when they don't like an assignment, they report sick."
The effect is noticeable to the veteran officers.
"The squads are basically as low as they can be to be effective," said Lt. John Eberhart of the Michigan Station, a 19-year veteran. "You might call the police, and, depending on what kind of call it is, you won't make a response for 20, 30 or 45 minutes."
Despite the problems, police continue to react quickly to the priority calls -- shootings, burglaries and robberies in progress. But some non-priority calls -- like noise disturbances -- never are answered.
"Sometimes, the guys are getting six or seven calls at the same time," said one high-ranking police official, who asked that his name not be used. "They have to prioritize which calls to answer. Sometimes they make the right decision. Sometimes they make the wrong decision."
A review of police time sheets and a series of interviews with police officers and their supervisors also showed:
Staffing levels at six of the city's 14 police precincts were so low a week ago they violated the City Charter, which requires each precinct to have 44 officers and supervisors. Although the number of officers in a precinct may go up or down from week to week, police officials said it is not uncommon for station houses to be understaffed in violation of city rules.
In six other precincts, minimum staffing levels were being met officially but not in actuality. The documents reported more officers in those precincts than actually were on duty. Although they are still listed on precinct rolls, some officers have been reassigned to special units, while others are on extended sick leave or serving with their reserve units in the Persian Gulf.
Fewer than three patrol cars are rolling during some eight-hour shifts in each of the precincts. The City Charter requires three patrol cars to be "assigned" -- not necessarily in working order -- to each precinct. Annoyed residents ask what good it is to have disabled cars assigned to station houses.
Public confidence, especially in inner-city neighborhoods where violent crime has increased the most recently, has dropped because of the dilemma, several residents said. And that has caused morale among officers to fall as well, said Lt. Robert P. Meegan of the Police Benevolent Association.
"The response time is ridiculous," said Robson, the father of two. "They should have what they're required to have by the City Charter."
Robson's family lives in the area protected by the Genesee Station, the precinct with the most shootings and violent crimes. In a meeting with police in October, a precinct official told frustrated Sobieski Street block club members the station was short of officers, Robson said.
"What's happened is they've taken people out of this precinct and put them in other details," one Genesee Station official said. "There's no police observing or trying to protect citizens because they're running from call to call."
As an example, city officials said 57 officers and supervisors were assigned a week ago to the Genesee Station, which covers an area roughly bounded by East Delavan, Sycamore, Bailey and Roehrer streets. But only 51 were working. Officials said one was on military leave, and five had been reassigned to other units.
In other precincts, like the busy Fillmore Station, manpower levels sometimes drop below the 44-officer requirement. Records also show that the Fillmore Station and other precincts routinely operate only one or two patrol cars because other cars have broken down.
Citywide, FBI statistics show that crime rose sharply from 1988 to 1989. Arrests for assaults increased by 8.7 percent as the overall violent crime rate rose by 8.3 percent, more than double the nationwide increase of 4.1.
From 1985 to 1989, violent crimes increased by 31.4 percent.
In the first 10 months of 1990, the number of arrests grew by 14.6 percent -- from 16,867 to 19,326 -- over the same time period of 1989. Calls for service, meanwhile, increased by 5.6 percent, from 298,405 last year to 314,984 this year.
The Common Council, whose members have received complaints from residents, told police administrators in November to prepare a report on how police are deployed. The Council also asked how officers could be redistributed to improve protection.
Police Commissioner Ralph V. Degenhart acknowledged last week that the number of officers in some precincts occasionally falls below the city requirement when officers retire or are shifted to other assignments. But Degenhart said residents are receiving adequate police protection because other officers are reshuffled from other precincts or units -- like the Tactical Task Force -- to ease shortages.
"It's happened at times for a very short period," Degenhart said. "But generally, the precincts are at 44 or above."
He also noted that officers who have been transferred from precincts stations often are returned to their neighborhoods working with special units -- like the intelligence squad.
And while addressing the residents' concerns about lack of street-worthy patrol cars, Degenhart pointed out that the city Friday purchased 30 new patrol cars.
If not for labor contract restrictions, Degenhart said, he would increase the police presence by assigning one officer -- instead of two as required -- to each patrol car. He also said he would alter officers' schedules so more police are assigned to the night shifts, when crime tends to increase.
And if not prevented by the City Charter, Degenhart said, he would shift officers from low-crime to high-crime precincts.
Inspector Mahoney, whose Internal Affairs Division probes allegations of police misconduct, acknowledged that staffing levels could be higher. But Mahoney said the staffing shortages are exacerbated by officers who abuse a sick-leave policy. Officers are not required to remain in their homes when they are off sick for fewer than three continuous days.
Degenhart said 90 of the department's 1,000 officers and detectives -- more than 600 of whom are in precincts -- often call in sick on any given day. Two years ago, the number calling in sick on any given day averaged between 20 and 30.
During any nightly eight-hour shift, 10 percent of the approximately 100 officers assigned to patrol the streets may be off sick, said Inspector Thomas Kinsella. At some precincts, where seven officers normally are scheduled for a nightly shift, two or three officers may report for duty, records show. Other officers have to work overtime or be reassigned from other details to fill the empty slots.
Dedicated officers often have trouble scheduling personal leave days or vacation time because of the staffing shortages, and Mahoney said that is prompting some of them to start abusing sick leave themselves.
"They're frustrated by the fakers," Mahoney said.
Meanwhile, in some neighborhoods, like the Fillmore District, residents have become vocal about the slow police response time. Residents have aired their gripes at meetings with police and public officials.
At one such meeting with police officials in October, Deputy Commissioner Joseph Scinta told residents that a sufficient number of cars and officers are assigned in their neighborhoods. He told activists to call him at his office if they want police to respond to a specific problem.
"They're doing a fantastic job," Scinta told the residents. "They're out there patrolling."
But the president of the Kosciuszko Street block club and other leaders said police are slow to arrive after being called. The Fillmore Station receives numerous calls regarding youth gangs, loud noises and drunks, and older residents are especially fearful after a series of several violent muggings.
"It's been like this for years and years. They don't have any additional cars. They always have broken-down cars," said the block club president, who did not want her name published. "It's a joke. We know that."