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University Heights crime has UB students worried They say police crackdown on quality-of-life issues ignores serious offenses

Wherever he goes in University Heights, crime finds Matt Murphy.

Eighteen months ago, Murphy and six friends were tied up and robbed at gunpoint by two men who walked into his Lisbon Avenue apartment through an unlocked door.

In May, he was sleeping at his girlfriend's apartment when a thief grabbed the couple's clothes through a bedroom window. And in August, he woke up in his LeBrun Road apartment to find a masked man with a knife standing over his bed.

"I like it here in the Heights, regardless of the crime," said Murphy, a University at Buffalo senior from Canton, who remains on LeBrun.

UB students in Buffalo's University Heights neighborhood say it seems that home invasions, gunpoint robberies and other crimes are on the rise.

Students say the well-publicized police crackdown on raucous parties in the Heights comes at the expense of efforts to combat this more serious crime in the neighborhood.

"They seem to be going after us, instead of issues that are more severe, such as robberies," said Jonathan V. Yedin, a UB senior and the student representative on the UB Council, who lives on Winspear Avenue.

Police officials said officers respond to all criminal complaints, and they treat robberies and burglaries with the same level of concern as quality-of-life violations.

"We focus on everything," said Chief Mark S. Antonio, head of patrol for the Ferry-Fillmore and Northeast districts.

Murphy is staying, but many students say the robberies and other crimes are driving them out of the neighborhood that for years has thrived in the shadow of UB's South Campus.

The student population in the two ZIP codes that primarily make up the Heights, 14214 and 14215, fell by 248 from last fall to this fall, to about 2,100 students, according to UB's Student Affairs Office.

Some of the decline stems from the opening this semester of a 828-bed, privately operated apartment complex on Sweet Home Road in Amherst.

But some students said a perception that the neighborhood isn't safe is driving them away.

"University Heights is not a safe place to be in," said Anthony J. Boscarino, a UB junior from Greece, who lives on Englewood Avenue. "I have a place I'm looking at in Elmwood. I'm trying to get the hell out of here."

It's hard to say whether crime is on the rise in the Heights.

A police official said she could not provide current data because of technical problems with a new computer system.

Older data from the department shows that violent crime in the Heights fell between 1998 and 2000 but then rose sharply in 2001 and 2002. Those figures include robberies but not burglaries and car thefts.

While Antonio said he hasn't seen a perceptible rise in crime, a good number of student residents say they've been the victim of a crime or know someone who was.

>Entry through window

Kutub Mallu was robbed in August by a thief who broke into his Main Street apartment through an open window.

"He was in the bedroom, two steps away from me. He was standing there, staring at us, checking to see if we were sleeping or if we were awake," said Mallu, a senior management major from Kuwait.

The thief, who had a knife, tied up Mallu and his girlfriend before taking Mallu's laptop, $200 cash, his Social Security card, credit cards, driver's license, loose change, cigarettes and video games and DVDs.

Mallu spent the first couple of months after the home invasion living with a friend in Angola, and only moved back a couple of weeks ago. His apartment is one of five on the same floor, and four were robbed within one month this fall.

When his lease is up, he plans to move to UB's North Campus.

"It's so frustrating. It's my apartment. I should have the freedom to open my window," Mallu said. "Every time I open it, I'm so scared."

Unfortunately, officials said, most of the robberies and burglaries in the Heights are crimes of opportunity by thieves looking for unlocked doors or windows.

"Students are rich and easy targets, because of the property they carry or have, because of the sense they have of being invincible and because of the use of alcohol," said Dennis R. Black, UB's vice president for student affairs.

Murphy, the frequent crime victim, was robbed most recently in late August after his girlfriend left his apartment to go to work but left the door unlocked.

The robber was standing in Murphy's bedroom for some time before the student woke up. "It was pretty creepy," he recalled. "He wanted to know where the money was."

Some students say the problem is police are more concerned about breaking up large parties and arresting students than with stopping burglaries and robberies.

One UB freshman, who asked not to be named, was arrested in September after she lied to police about her age because she didn't want to get in trouble for drinking at a party.

The Long Island native, who was 17 at the time, said that as an officer drove her downtown, police calls for other criminal activity came over the car's radio.

"The cop was like, 'I shouldn't be here,' " she said.

>Quality-of-life issues

Policing is not a zero-sum situation, Antonio responded, and police can effectively focus on quality-of-life violations and violent or property crimes.

University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said the students are trying to deflect attention from their rowdy parties, which are a large problem in the Heights and should remain a focus of police efforts.

"Quality of life is what stabilizes a neighborhood," Russell said.

A number of students complain that they were treated rudely by police and said that officers indiscriminately arrested students for no good reason.

In mid-September, officers arrived at an Englewood Avenue party about 90 minutes after most of the guests had left, according to Josh Hancock, a UB senior from Fairport who lives on Northrup Place.

When Hancock asked police why they were there, a lieutenant told him to put his hands on her patrol car. Hancock said he asked what he had done wrong.

"She said, 'I'm charging you with I have nothing better to do,' " he recalled.

Hancock sat handcuffed in the patrol car for half an hour before he was released.

"The attitude I got is that [police] thought we were all criminals or dirt bags," he said.

>Police defend crackdown

Police use discretion every time they make an arrest, Antonio said, and they treat the people they deal with as professionally as possible.

Students noted that charges against nearly all of the people arrested in the party crackdown were dismissed.

Of 23 people, most UB students, arrested over two weekends in September and October, five had their charges dismissed outright and 17 received a promise that the charges would be dropped if they avoided trouble for the next six or 12 months, according to City Court records. One case was pending.

"I think it was mostly done as a means of harassment. None of the charges stuck," said Hancock, the student who was handcuffed but not arrested.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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