Demonstrators protesting violence kicked off a rally Tuesday by circling Niagara Square, chanting:
"One, two, three, four; Rocco Diina's got to go."
Dozens of protesters then converged on a stage in front of City Hall, their left fists clenched in the air, as they urged a crowd of about 250 people to join in another chant:
"What do we want? A homicide squad. When do we need it? Now."
"How do we want it? Black officers."
These were among the strong messages voiced at Tuesday afternoon's event, organized by the Stop the Violence Coalition.
Members of the East Side group called for the Buffalo Police Department to establish a cold-case squad to solve old murder cases and a unit devoted exclusively to solving homicides as well as use more African-American officers to solve murders.
They also lashed out at Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina for failing to meet with them. Diina responded today that he has never received an invitation from the group to meet.
Standing on the stage flanked by more than 20 men, Anthony Brown, chairman of the coalition, told the audience, "Tomorrow, it could be your son or daughter who is murdered. And every elected official in this city will be held accountable from this day forward by this group of brave men."
Police respond that the Homicide and Robbery squads were consolidated into the Major Crimes Unit for financial reasons.
Only 47 percent -- 372 -- of the city's 790 homicides between 1990 and 2003 were solved, according to police statistics.
In an interview, Deputy Police Commissioner Mark E. Blankenberg said the department needs more public cooperation to solve murders, adding that the rally ignored the social issues plaguing the inner-city community.
"No one is ever pulled off of a homicide to investigate a robbery. Homicides always take precedence," he said.
"The fact is, the police come in after the fact. Some of these people are coldblooded killers with no conscience and the police are called in after the crime."
"Do you think these kids are shooting people because we don't have a (dedicated) homicide squad?" Blankenberg asked. "It's easy to point the finger at us. I tend to think that when the cameras go away, a lot of these activists stop doing anything."
The Police Department has formed a committee to analyze the work of its Major Crimes Unit and recommend ways to improve the clearance rate. Blankenberg said the panel will hold its first meeting next week and the findings will be presented to Diina within a month.
For Markita Malone, the rally rekindled the pain of losing her cousin and boyfriend, both gunned down on city streets.
Her cousin, Raseem Young, a 26-year-old father of three, was shot Sept. 27 as he tried to break up an argument outside his Olympic Avenue home.
Malone's boyfriend, Robert Fugate, a 27-year-old Buffalo candy company worker, was shot to death in 1995 in Eddie Dawson Park on Roetzer Street. The couple had three children together.
"I just feel empty inside because I have to fill the role of their father, when I can't," said Malone, who wore a T-shirt with her cousin's face.
"My children used to cry out when they didn't see their father. . . . I represent everyone out here who has lost someone."
The event featured a mix of songs, prayers, speeches and protesters holding signs with messages that read: "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job," "Brothers Dying, Mothers Crying," and "13th Amendment: Stay out of Jail, Don't be a Slave."
Elected officials in the audience included Erie County Legislator Demone A. Smith, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and State Sen. Byron W. Brown, all Buffalo Democrats.
Stop the Violence Coalition members also stressed the importance of unified black families and equity in employment and education.