Surrounded by a booty of guns, knives and drugs that police have pulled off the streets in Niagara Falls, law enforcement leaders from across Western New York declared war Friday on the Bloods and Crips gang members who have turned the city into a shooting gallery in recent weeks.
"If there's a danger of our streets turning into some kind of Wild West show here in Niagara Falls, then we want to make sure that our posse, the blue gang, is bigger than Jesse James' gang that dominates the streets," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said during a news conference at the Niagara Falls public safety building.
William J. Hochul Jr., the region's new U.S. attorney, vowed to continue to use federal charges, which can bring more prison time, to address the escalating gang violence in the city.
"I pledge to use all my office's resources to end this reign of terror," Hochul said. "This is the beginning of the end of the street violence."
There have been about 50 shooting-related incidents -- and 11 people hit -- since the start of the new year in the Falls. The shootings have been concentrated in the midtown area, away from popular tourist spots.
Hochul, who was sworn in on March 12, told The Buffalo News that the first work-related call he got after hours involved a shooting on Pine Avenue in the Falls.
He is no stranger to the city. As an assistant U.S. attorney, he helped convict 18 members of Laborers Local 91 on racketeering and other counts in 2006.
His office plans to prosecute those dealing drugs and illegally using guns in the city. Hochul said he will use federal racketeering laws against the street gangs -- since they wear the same colors, names and tag corners -- and that those convicted will face mandatory sentencing for weapons and drugs trafficking.
Niagara County District Attorney Michael A. Violante also vowed to be part of the fight.
"We will make sure they are prosecuted to the fullest extent that we can manage in the State of New York," Violante said, "but there will be cases that will be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office because their punishment is far more severe."
Police Superintendent John R. Chella said increased gun violence since December is connected to a feud between two rival gangs, the XYID Bloods and the Eighth Street Boyz, who are affiliated with the Crips.
This week, several people involved in gun and drug activity were arrested, Chella said, including the leaders of the rival gangs: Aarmon Askew Jr., 21, of Packard Court, who leads the local chapter of the Bloods, and James Ashley, 21, of Eighth Street, who leads the Eighth Street Boyz.
Both are being held on federal weapons and drug trafficking charges.
Another member of the Boyz, Cecil Mulkey, 19, of Jordan Gardens, also was hit with federal gun and drugs charges.
Meanwhile, Howard Welch, 18, of Ferry Avenue, a member of the same gang, was accused Monday of shooting Jamar Shipp, 20, a member of the Bloods indicted last year on federal drug and weapons charges and awaiting sentencing, in a Pine Avenue parking lot. Welch faces state charges of assault, reckless endangerment and criminal use of a firearm.
Chella said police continue to develop information on gang activity in the city and that more arrests are expected.
He also announced that as of Friday night, his department is doubling the size of its five-member Roving Anti-Crime Unit, using overtime.
The new officers will patrol the streets in plain clothes, during various hours on differing days, in unmarked vehicles. Unit officers are "really willing to get involved in what's happening here," Chella said.
A patrol lieutenant will direct the unit using intelligence from a crime analyst, as well as information from other departments in and outside the city.
"Their main focus will be to increase the number of confiscated weapons," Chella said, "but they will also be charged with addressing every violation of the law, no matter how minuscule, that affects the quality of life."
The mayor pledged to keep the streets safe but said that parents and those who supervise teens and young adults also need to exercise parental authority.
Dyster also warned that while in the past some smaller violations may have been overlooked, with more resources on the street that would be much more unlikely.
"Keep your kids from being part of the problem," he urged.
"I want to congratulate the chief on [the police department's] vigorous response thus far," Dyster added, "but we are just getting started. I think there is a fear that we are heading for a long, hot summer. I'm sure that is true, but it is only about the weather."
"It's unfortunate," said Chella, "that a group of ruthless, cowardly individuals have to garner all the attention and put Niagara Falls in a bad light. We have a majority of a population that obeys the law and contributes to society. I pledge . . . that those who don't want to adhere to those standards will pay a dear price."