Impressed with the successes of a similar effort in New York City, city police have taken a new approach to pursuing chronic criminals -- chasing the small potatoes.
The Falls police department's Roving Anti-Crime (RAC) Unit routinely focuses on routine offenses: loitering on street corners, for instance. What they've found is that people committing such minor offenses are frequently those involved in more serious crimes, such as drug dealing, burglary, robbery and assault.
In declaring zero tolerance for such activity, they've been able to make several warrant arrests and restore a greater sense of well-being to some crime-ridden neighborhoods.
"We deal with street-corner kind of stuff, the quality-of-life issues," said RAC unit commander Lt. David LeGault. "A lot of things are just problems for neighbors -- not being able to go to the corner store because of prostitutes or kids loitering and going to cars to make drug deals.
"Our theory is, you eliminate the street stuff -- the lesser crimes -- and they lead to bigger things. You make an arrest and you find drugs on the guy, or (learn that) there's an outstanding warrant."
Police Chief Ernest Palmer said, "Traditional policing emphasizes solving major crimes. When we lost the beat officers, we lost a lot of the feedback from the people. With this unit, we re-prioritized, and we're beginning to listen to the people again."
"We made a commitment to the residents of the city to improve the quality of life through this effort," he said, describing it as "keeping the peace in the neighborhoods."
Since its inception last summer, the RAC unit has racked up dozens of arrests, put a dent in street-corner narcotics sales, interrupted a couple of stolen car operations and largely displaced the city's prostitution trade, Palmer said.
The unit has been responsible for some 70 prostitution arrests just since September, LeGault said, resulting in fewer hookers on the streets -- and less disruption to the neighborhoods they traditionally frequented.
"They seem to have been pretty effective so far," said Samuel Granieri, a Niagara County legislator and president of the Upper Niagara Street Block Club.
"The thing I like best is that this puts a police presence right in the streets and neighborhoods, where they can do the most good."
The eight RAC officers targeted the 25th-26th Street area last summer during a rash of garage break-ins, Granieri said, and also put a quick end to "rowdyism and vandalism" in the area of Niagara Street School.
"A little extra police presence takes care of those problems a lot quicker than we could on our own," Granieri said. "The more time and energy they can devote to problems as they occur, the better it will be for all neighborhoods."
As devised by Palmer, the RAC unit focuses on "problem areas" as determined by a weekly review of crime reports. Resident input is also considered when determining target areas.
"We keep track of specific crimes to see if any trends are developing," Palmer said. "We have a computerized pin map" and rely on the input of patrol captains, narcotics agents and detectives working the streets.
"We also look for seasonal trends in determining where we should deploy resources," Palmer said. "We've been very pleased with the results."
On Tuesday mornings, the department's top brass gathers around a rectangular table in the Intelligence Bureau, each with a stack of reports in hand, and discuss the events of the past week.
They examine 10 different categories of crime, including burglary, car theft, assaults, prostitution, drug offenses and loitering, and determine "hot spots" in need of extra attention.
RAC resources are assigned accordingly. Officers may work in plain clothes or uniform, in patrol car or on foot or bicycle, nighttime or daytime, doing surveillance or stakeouts.
"We're freed from responding to regular calls," LeGault explained. "When the unit was started last summer, it was part-time. The nice thing now is it's full-time, so there's a little more continuity."
Palmer said when the unit was started on a pilot basis last summer, "the results were staggering. Just over the summer, they had close to 1,000 arrests, just on quality-of-life offenses," including congregating on corners for gambling, drinking, and using and selling drugs.
Complaints that would have received low priority in the average patrolman's typically hectic day can get full attention from the RAC team.
"They go into trouble spots and kind of watch out for things," said Norma Higgs, president of the Blockbusters block club in the City Hall area.
"A lot of times the guys throwing garbage on the streets are the same guys breaking into houses and robbing people," she said. "By harassing them, they started moving on, and if we can just get them to move on, I would be happy."
Ms. Higgs organized her block club after being assaulted inside her garage a couple of years ago. She said that her neighborhood had turned into "a sort of crossroads from the east side to the north end, with a lot of people cutting through from one drug place to another.
"It's not a bad area. There are a lot of good people here," she said. "It just got to the point where all kinds of crazy people were passing through."
Greater police presence helped alleviate the problem, she said, and she'd like to see that continued and expanded.
"Anything is better than nothing," she said. "We need police on the streets, in the neighborhoods."
During a recent strategy meeting, Palmer noted an unusual increase of violent crimes one week -- only a slight blip on the map, but a cause for concern.
"We should all keep a real close eye on this, especially groups of two to four people who may be ripping people off for drugs," he told the collection of patrol captains, shift supervisors, juvenile officers, narcotics agents and detectives assembled.
"This is the kind of thing that could get ugly real quick."
Although intelligence personnel doubted the presence of organized gang activity, Palmer suggested gathering some information on the parties involved -- "who they are, who they associate with" -- just in case.
Lt. Andrew Viglucci said he would explore the possibility of securing some grant money available to battle gang activity.
It's that kind of assertive police work that intrigues LeGault.
"That's the nice thing," he said. "If we see some kinds of gangs coming in, for instance, we can hit them fast, before they get a foothold."
Palmer said, "We're able to anticipate where crime problems are developing and be proactive. The goal is not really to make the most arrests that we can, the goal is to prevent crime."
That approach was effective in breaking up stolen car operations, one of which involved "downtown kids stealing cars for joyrides," and another consisting of "some kids out of Buffalo" taking cars primarily for parts, LeGault said.
Two officers from the Niagara Falls Housing Authority are helping keep a lid on problems in the city's housing projects, LeGault said.
"We cleaned things up last summer that way, and the neighbors loved it," he said. This year, the RAC team will make greater use of the department's mobile command center to increase visibility in neighborhoods.
"We'll do a lot of work on foot and on bicycles, too," LeGault said. "A lot of times the bad guys don't expect that . . . we have to be flexible."
"Chief Palmer and Deputy Chief (John) Chella are 100 percent behind us on this," LeGault said. "We're looking to expand on the successes they had last year."