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BLITZES AGAINST CRIME RAISE ISSUE OF THE LONG RUN

As Buffalo police announce their third crackdown on violence in less than a year, there is skepticism about who is winning the long-term battle.

Last Aug. 4, Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina announced a crackdown on summer violence, using state troopers and sheriff's deputies as part of the Stop the Violence Task Force.

On March 29, Diina unveiled Operation IMPACT, using about $250,000 in new state money to target guns, drugs and gangs for the coming summer.

Monday, Diina took to the podium again in Police Headquarters, announcing the new Sweep Clean initiative that will blitz high-crime neighborhoods one day at a time.

That's three major police initiatives announced in less than a year, all aimed largely at combating summertime street violence.

What's going on here?

Top Buffalo police brass say the latest blitz, Sweep Clean, is not a new program, just a "tweaking" of previous methods used to combat street violence. Sweep Clean, in part, will saturate known "hot spots" for several hours, using officers from several local police agencies to serve warrants, arrest gang members and pull illegal guns off the streets.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who is part of the initiative, is optimistic about its prospects but also concerned about the long-term battle.

"People should be optimistic that the immediate problem is being addressed, but my skepticism is over the long run," Clark said from his office after Monday's news conference. "We can't keep putting something new in place each year with a catchy new slogan."

Every summer, there is an upsurge in street violence, greeted by an initiative to combat it, the district attorney said.

"We have to have staffing levels and financial commitments sufficient to address this problem over the long haul," Clark said. "Whether it's through our own resources, or through state or federal resources, we need some permanent initiative in place that's available 12 months a year.

"In my opinion, that's the only way we're going to beat it long-term."

Police officials say news conferences such as Monday's -- where a new operation is unveiled under a "catchy new slogan" -- are a way to inform the public about their latest crime-fighting strategy.

"There's no silver bullet," Diina said. "We're constantly evaluating our strategy and making adjustments to fit the needs of our objective. The sweeps are one of many components we're using in an attempt to deal with this complex problem."

While this has not been a hot summer in terms of temperature, observers say increasing gang battles, turf wars over crack cocaine and marijuana dealing, and lack of summer programs for youths all have helped raise the temperature on summer violence.

Battling summer violence on city streets is no easy task, with few simple answers and a long list of root causes for the violence.

Until Buffalo police can get long-term funding commitments to put many more officers on the streets, the department's leaders are trying to fine-tune their most successful methods in getting violent gang members and illegal guns off the streets.

"It's nothing new," Deputy Police Commissioner Mark E. Blankenberg said. "We're not reinventing the wheel here. We're just modifying the specifics of our programs."

Operation IMPACT, a $7 million program in 20 counties across the state, is a long-term project, announced March 29. The state grant is used largely for intelligence-gathering behind the scenes, with the help of several law enforcement agencies.

Police say the Stop the Violence Task Force announced last August was a short-term project, concentrated throughout the East Side; it has since been absorbed under Operation IMPACT.

Detective Sgt. Robert T. Chella, chief of special services, said the Buffalo Police Department is using a new strategy with Sweep Clean -- targeting specific, smaller neighborhoods, mostly on the East Side, and going door-to-door to visit neighbors and solicit their tips. Chella said that typically, investigators will canvass a neighborhood after a homicide. He said investigators are using that same approach for Sweep Clean, except this is proactive.

The goal is to saturate a neighborhood with officers, approaching neighbors, gathering tips, handing out pamphlets -- in short, reconnecting to a neighborhood that might no longer confide in police very often.

"When we knock on these doors, it's like a sale," Chella said. "Our whole focus is to generate information to solve a crime."

In Towne Gardens, for example, police held their first Sweep Clean blitz July 6, prompted by fighting between two rivals gangs -- 31 and Downtown. Chella said that during the blitz, citizens gave officers the license plate numbers and descriptions of suspicious vehicles in the neighborhood, along with gang members' profiles and nicknames.

In short, it's good police work.

"The name changes, but the program doesn't," Chella said. "We're just tweaking it."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com
and gwarner@buffnews.com

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