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33 JOIN THE RANKS OF HOUSING AUTHORITY OFFICERS RECRUITS BOLSTER FORCE DEPLETED BY TRANSFERS TO BUFFALO POLICE DEPARTMENT

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority is replenishing its staff of public safety officers with 33 new recruits.

Graduation ceremonies were held for the peace officers Monday in Southside Elementary School auditorium. Recently, the new recruits successfully completed a 10-week, 400-hour basic law enforcement officer training at the Erie County Central Police Services Training Academy. They will join an existing force of 14 public safety officers.

Each of the new recruits had to pass a security background check, medical examination, agility test and psychological review.

Last year, some 50 Housing Authority peace officers -- more than three-quarters of the force -- bolted the ranks to join the Buffalo Police Department. They had become eligible to join the ranks of higher-paid police officers after passing a Civil Service promotional exam. That, and a lack of funds to replace the departed officers, sparked talk at that time of consolidating the Housing Authority Public Safety Department with the Buffalo Police Department.

However, Public Safety Chief Ronald J. Christopher said Monday's ceremony marked the beginning of a restaffing and reorganization of his department.

"We're now going to have more of an emphasis on community policing and more interaction between the public safety officers and the residents," Christopher said.

Housing Authority management and the public safety officers union are in the process of formalizing a new contract that will significantly boost the salaries of new recruits in their third, fourth and fifth years. The starting annual salary has been boosted to $26,000 from $23,000 in the proposed contract, with the top-scale salary peaking at about $36,000.

Previously, top pay for public-safety officers was $30,000, while Buffalo police officers, after five years of service, are paid about $43,000 annually.

"We're hoping this will make it more attractive for them to stay on (with the Public Safety Department), especially after the fourth and fifth year, when the big raises kick in," Christopher said.

Additionally, he said, the new contract calls for the staff workday to be conducted in two 10-hour shifts instead of three eight-hour shifts.

"This will allow us to get more officers on the street because we're also looking to decentralize the department," Christopher said.

Half of the staff will operate out of a facility at the Kenfield and Langfield projects in the city's University District, and the other half will be stationed in the Commodore Perry Homes in the southern end of the city.

"It's similar to the (Buffalo) police (precinct) reorganization. The same officers will be assigned to the same area all the time. That continuity will allow them to get to know the residents better," Christopher said.

Sharon West, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the department reorganization will place more emphasis on having public safety officers walking beats.

"We're also purchasing bicycles for bicycle patrols," Ms. West said.

In addition, she said, officers from among the new recruits are being interviewed for a pilot program that will allow local police or public safety officers to live in one of the Housing Authority units at a significantly reduced rent.

It calls for making two two-bedroom units -- one at Kenfield and one at Langfield -- available for the program. Ultimately, if the program proves successful, a resident officer would live in each of the Housing Authority's 13 developments.

"Several of the new officers are interested, and we're currently screening final candidates," Ms. West said.

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