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With drive-by shootings providing a throwback to gangland killings earlier this century, the 1990s seemed destined to end as one of Buffalo's deadliest decades.

But halfway through the past 10 years, an unprecedented response by law enforcement and the community helped suppress the crack cocaine epidemic and reverse the street violence it spawned.

Now Buffalo stands poised to enter the new millennium with one of its lowest homicide rates in recent years. The city, as of today, has recorded 32 killings in 1999 -- a 65 percent drop from the all-time high of 92 murders in 1994.

The 32 slayings also are 10 fewer than the 42 logged in 1998, a 23.8 percent drop. And it marks the fifth consecutive year the murder rate has declined.

"We've taken the violent career criminals off the street and put them in jail," said Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina. "We've broken up a lot of major drug gangs whose activities had brought our murder rate to a record high."

Homicide Chief Joseph Riga agreed, saying: "These types of drug-related homicides are not occurring nearly as frequently. Many of the individuals involved in the violence are in jail or dead."

While he agrees with the police officials, Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark believes something more is at work in knocking down the number of homicides in the city.

"It's some sort of community thing," the DA said. "The community is coming together in a special way or we've somehow reached our tolerance level for violence. It's almost as though the reason is more than just the normal laundry list."

On a number of occasions when senseless killings of innocent children and others occurred during the drive-by shootings that stamped the deadliest years of the '90s, community members gathered to pray and make public statements deploring the violence.

Some religious leaders believe the city's prayers have been answered.

"I would definitely say the impact of the overall church throughout the city is being felt in all of this," said the Rev. Bennett W. Smith, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church on Goodell Street. "Religion is at its peak, especially in the minority communities where a lot of these homicides have taken place."

Smith, a chaplain for the Buffalo Police Department, said his congregation has held prayer vigils and attended other spiritual gatherings throughout the city to seek an end to the killings.

"We've prayed for peace and safety in the community," he said, adding that a reduction in the crack epidemic helped cut the violence.

Monsignor James F. Campbell, rector at St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral and a police force chaplain, also recognized a spiritual element at work in the lower homicide rate.

"It's a good thing to attribute the relief to God after we've prayed strenuously and in desperation for a change, but we have much further to go in using our talents to do something about what causes high crime," he said. "The other element is television and all the violence it broadcasts."

Luck also had something to do with the drop in murders, according to Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

"It's a result of terrific police work, community involvement and luck. That three-part equation resulted in better teamwork," Masiello said. "More professionalism in the Buffalo Police Department certainly helped."

Detective Ray Masecchia, the most senior member of the Homicide Bureau, attributes the drop to the cyclical nature of violence and rapid medical responses to critically wounded victims.

"I've seen people saved with gunshot wounds to the head and heart," Masecchia said. "A few years back, their chances of survival wouldn't have been as great as they are now. You have your peaks and valleys, and right now we're in the valley with homicide rates."

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