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City blitz of arrests straining county Zero-tolerance policy new burden for budget

The continuing zero-tolerance blitz on quality-of-life and drug-related crimes in the City of Buffalo is on a collision course with the Erie County budget.

In the first two months of this year, Buffalo police made 500 more arrests than in the comparable period last year.

That means a short-staffed Erie County crime lab must now perform more tasks, the district attorney and probation officers face bigger caseloads, and there's a greater demand for inmate space at an already packed Erie County Holding Center.

With Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, Mayor Byron W. Brown and police union President Robert P. Meegan Jr. promising that the zero-tolerance policy is here to stay, county officials say that something has to give.

"It creates a problem for all of us," said Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark.

Clark estimated that looming statutory deadlines for prosecuting cases are jeopardizing 20 to 30 "small-level" misdemeanor drug offenses because of backlogs in testing at the county's Central Police Services crime lab.

Lab work for misdemeanor cases must be completed within a prosecutors' 90-day window for a case to go to trial, or the charges are dismissed. The Central Police Services lab handles cases on a priority basis based on a daily list of deadlines provided by the district attorney's office.

"This is definitely not a positive result," Gipson said. "Our zero-tolerance anti-crime effort forces us to focus on low-level drug dealing, so it's not beneficial to the community or the Buffalo Police Department if a lot of these case are dismissed and not prosecuted."

The lab is down to five chemists for narcotics cases after one retired March 3. The retirement is not official until mid-May, however, because of accrued vacation time. The policy of the county is not to fill the post until the employee is taken off the payroll.

Dr. John P. Simich, assistant director of the county's Forensic Laboratory, says "one body means a lot" to the lab as cases begin to pile up.

"It will be a problem," Simich said. "The chemists say they have seen a noticeable increase [in workload] since that started."

Coupling that with the short staff has meant more hours and more compensatory time for those workers in the future. They already are nearing maximum comp time thresholds for county employees, Simich said.

Gipson said he would like to see more people hired to do police lab work, but "county budgetary issues are beyond my purview, so we're stuck with the staffing levels."

Central Police Services Commissioner Kevin J. Comerford downplayed the threat of cases being dismissed because of timeliness. Though the vacant chemist's post will not be filled until May, he said, the department could shift employees around to pick up the slack, if needed.

"We haven't missed a deadline yet, and I don't expect we will," Comerford said. "We can't have it both ways. You can't beat us up for double-filling [positions] and then beat us up for not doing it."

"Double filling" a position means that a second person is hired to fill a job while the departed employee is still on the county's payroll.

Officials also are seeking alternative funding sources to pay for the increased workload.

Erie County Budget Director Kenneth J. Vetter said the county is taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the city's zero-tolerance enforcement policy. "For us, the question is how long is the current policy going to stay in effect?" he said. "If this is temporary, there are things that we can do to handle it, like overtime. If zero-tolerance became permanent, we're going to have to take a look across the county to make sure we have staffing levels to adequately address the change."

Gipson said the enforcement blitz is here to stay.

"It's my hope that our effort is not a blip on the radar screen," he said. "This is not a temporary measure on our part, and our officers will continue to focus on reducing quality-of-life crimes."

After the county's budget crunch cost his office 18 assistant district attorneys last year, Clark says he must be especially careful about prioritizing the caseload.

"We'll try to accommodate [the zero-tolerance policy] the best we can, . . . [but] I need my lawyers trying felonies, not quality-of-life crimes," Clark said. "Everybody wants the same level of performance, but they don't want to pay for it."

The City of Buffalo accounts for about two-thirds of all arrests in Erie County and contributes about the same ratio of inmates to the Holding Center.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said the Holding Center's inmate population was up by 79 from March 4 to March 14, an average of about eight more per day. The inmate population this week is 1,568, he said; capacity is 1,605. .

As of now, Howard said, the Holding Center is within state guidelines. However, should the trend continue, he said, there could be problems.

"We will continue our enforcement effort," Gipson said, "and hopefully voluntary compliance will reach a point that we'll see fewer people breaking the law."

News Staff Reporter Vanessa Thomas contributed to this report.

-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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