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Police changes a good idea

Buffalo's new police commissioner has spelled out a series of ambitious initiatives he wants to undertake to improve the quality of life for the city's residents. I wish him well in pursuit of these objectives, although I doubt they can all be accomplished. H. McCarthy Gipson hopes to effectuate numerous changes in the department with the same number of officers, 747, his predecessor had under his command.

I congratulate Gipson for coming up with a series of steps that appear to make good sense. But can all of his plans be carried out? His immediate predecessor did a pretty good job of running a department with a reduced number of people and a limited budget. As could be expected, it had its critics, particularly those who wanted improvements in handling of quality of life factors for city residents.

The new commissioner has pledged to address those quality of life crimes and improve relations with community members. His announced objective would crack down on street-level drug activity, enforce curfews for young people and make sure that arrests are made for minor crimes such as those involved in graffiti, excessive noise, street gambling, illegal street vending, illegal parking and obstructing sidewalks. All of this has to be done without overlooking more serious crimes.

So-called quality of life issues are in fact minor transgressions but are vastly important to most of our citizens. "My plan," says the new commissioner, "is designed to focus on various violations that adversely affect the quality of life for all citizens." Few, if any, would quarrel with that.

Gipson now has to motivate the rank and file of his forces to strictly enforce the laws that regulate these daily problems in the city. Fortunately, Gipson seemingly has the full support of the mayor in his endeavors to alleviate these relatively minor problems.

Gipson's plans do not in any way overlook the traditional role of police in working to stem major crime in the community. To implement this, he has reorganized the department's 85 detectives, eliminated two detective divisions and taken other steps to make more detectives available to the five police districts and the Narcotics Unit.

The Narcotics Unit, long understaffed, currently has 13 members. It will be vastly enhanced by the addition of 17 officers. It's a step long needed and will greatly aid Gipson's plan to stem narcotics activity in the city. The detectives will come from the Major Crimes Unit and the General Investigation Unit, both of which will be dissolved. The wisdom of disbanding these units, particularly the Major Crimes Unit, remains to be seen.

Gipson is aware that some of his announced moves could have negative consequences but, as he said, "We're trying to do more with the same number of officers. We only have so many detectives, so we're trying to spread their wealth to the areas that most need the investment of their time."

Hopefully, the Police Benevolent Association will cooperate with the new commissioner in his department restructuring. The changes he has outlined will spread his manpower across more of the city, and district detectives will be assigned to work days and nights when needed and not just days.

Many of the changes can be made without PBA approval and will take place almost immediately. Some of the changes may not work as well as anticipated, and if so, the commissioner should take steps to restore old procedures or seek substitutes for the plans he instituted. We all want a more efficient Police Department, and if some of the changes, once implemented, don't work well, Gipson should move quickly to make adjustments.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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