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19th Street plagued by crime Niagara Falls police, neighborhood advocates seek to shift a troubling tide

NIAGARA FALLS -- Karl Brusino remembers a time when 19th Street used to be among the safest streets in the city.

The city police field intelligence officer used to live on the street, but not anymore.

Many who live on the stretch between Falls Street and Pine Avenue sometimes wish they could say the same.

The stretch has become troubling for two reasons, police and residents say.

Drugs and prostitution.

The two have fostered other crimes, and turned 19th Street into a frequent stop for city police. Police hope that taking two additional steps will one day make for less frequent stops: They hope to open a substation in the neighborhood and plan to make the strip the first place in the city where a police camera is permanently installed.

That would be fine with neighbors like Sheila Hilson, 44, a Falls Street resident.

"There's been a lot of chaos and fighting," Hilson said. "Lately it's been pretty rough. We definitely could use a substation."

The troubling part of 19th Street is at the center of a neighborhood bounded by 17th and 21st streets, Falls Street to Pine Avenue.

It's a section that has become a hub for prostitution and robbery calls. Police are reacting by making arrests for loitering, a charge often filed against those who are in the area drinking alcohol or who may be trying to purchase drugs.

The area accounted for 68 percent of all prostitution calls police handled in the entire city last year. It also accounted for 20 percent of the drug cases, 57 percent of the loitering cases and 35 percent of the robbery calls.

"Drugs are controlled by the gangs," Brusino said. "[Drugs are] why the prostitutes are doing what they're doing. It's a constant cycle. Prostitution is an annoyance, but the most dangerous thing in this city is still getting robbed."

>'A bad street'

W.C. Williams, 60, of 21st Street, feels safe on his block. But not on 19th.

"This is a bad street," Williams said. "It's all over town about 19th Street. "Lots of drugs."

"The reason why 19th Street appears to be such a hot spot is that many people use it to travel to other places, Narcotics Detective Steven Reed said. "It's one of the few streets in the city that goes from one end of the city to the other."

Reed, who specializes in gang activity in the city, said gangs are fluid in the city. That's why the Falls department has a Roving Anti-Crime Unit.

"Areas pop up, and we deal with it as it comes," Reed said.

Brusino said there are gangs, but they can be hard to identify. It also can be hard to prove someone is part of a gang.

The Bloods are the biggest gang in the neighborhood, Brusino said, but the Crips are growing fast. Neither has a national charter in the city, he said.

Andy Isa is the owner of Andy's, a convenience store at 19th and Falls streets. It is a busy oasis in the midst of the neighborhood troubles.

"It might be a little bad, but the cops are doing a really good job. In 15 years I've never had a break-in," Isa said.

"No one ever got shot in this area," Isa added.

In fact, he has big plans to knock down his current store, expand and grow his business.

He is among those who would welcome a police substation.

"I've seen good days and bad days," Isa said. Inside [the store] is not bad, but outside is off and on."

On a recent visit to the store, officers familiar with the area point out a woman with a black eye who is a known prostitute. They train in on a man who is "higher than a kite" on drugs.

>Not giving up

Detective Shawn Bosi, Niagara Falls Community Relations said, "Drugs and prostitution are big problem in this area. But it moves around in the city and we're a Project Impact city. We have the ability to put more patrols in an area where there is a problem. We want to keep our city productive.

"We do have a lot of police presence down here. It's one of our main strips," Bosi said.

Ian Patton, 32, lives nearby on 22nd Street. He describes 19th as a "rough area."

"This is a bad drug area," Patton said. I'm not afraid to walk here, because I'm a military guy, but I would not send a female friend alone."

When the first of the month comes, and many residents in the area get their public assistance checks, the danger intensifies, he said.

Block club leaders are not giving up on the neighborhood, or the city.

Robert Miller is the new president of the Niagara Falls Block Clubs. He was appointed last November.

"We have 34 plus block clubs in the city," Miller said. "We have signs and placards for the window. With the help of block clubs, we can make this work."

Niagara Falls Block Club Treasurer Norma Higgs said she started her local block club in 1995 when she was assaulted in her own garage. She hasn't stopped advocating for block clubs since.

Miller got involved with city block clubs after someone tried to break into a car in his garage three years ago in the historic Echota District of the city.

Neither will give up on the city.

"I'm the eternal optimist. I love this city. I'm not going anywhere," Miller said.

"The most important thing," said Higgs, "is for people to look out their window and let us know what is going on."

For anyone who is afraid to call police, "Call me up," Higgs said. "Just tell me the truth. I will take a report from anyone." Her phone number: 282-3599.

"I'm in the phone book also," Miller added.

>Police station needed

Eastside Block Club President Patricia Frederick said that her family has lived in the city for several generations. She has seen things change from being able to walk home, to not being able to ride a motorcycle. Frederick said someone jumped in front of her while she was riding home.

"People want to see change," she said.

"It's scary coming home after dark," Frederick said. "If the police weren't here, it would be much worse. We need a police substation, a permanent police presence."

"I know we are going to bring Niagara Falls back. Let's get some of the people who moved out of town to say look, Niagara Falls has a lot of promise. Things are starting to happen," Miller said. "Our main objective is to make sure that an 85-year-old woman feels safe, safe enough so she can walk to her neighbors and improve the quality of life for the neighborhood."

Weed and Seed Director Alan Booker said the city has submitted an application to the national office in Washington, D.C., to open a second Weed and Seed site at the new substation and has formed a South End steering committee.

"I know people can be scared out there, but since I've been working with Weed and Seed we've been trying to have residents and law enforcement work together," Booker said. "I'm always looking for volunteers, especially if we have a second site and everyone has some type of a skill."


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