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Police commissioner defends unit for city-owned housing complexes

Buffalo's interim police commissioner is defending his decision to set up a special unit to deal with crime problems in city-owned housing complexes.

Acting Commissioner Daniel Derenda said the 21-person unit will likely stay in place even if the Common Council refuses to approve a contract under which the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority would pay the city $650,000 a year to help offset costs.

The new security detail, which began June 9, will improve public safety, Derenda assured lawmakers Monday at a special meeting of the Council's Finance Committee. He told the Council members a dozen times that the action will allow police to be "more efficient, more effective and more proactive."

"People want to separate the city from the housing complexes. They are city residents. There's 12,000 of them," Derenda told the lawmakers.

Derenda added that he believes the new unit will help ease workloads in police districts, saying problems in the housing complexes spread into neighborhoods. He said there are some serious crime issues to address in public housing.

"We have open-air drug dealing. We have the drug dealers -- the gang members that have virtually taken over complexes," Derenda said.

The big question on some lawmakers' minds is whether the shifting of 18 officers, two lieutenants and a captain to the housing security unit might shortchange some neighborhoods in terms of police patrols.

"I'm just wondering how thin can we spread the Buffalo Police Department. We're talking about 21 positions that are going to be dedicated to this contract," said Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, a retired Buffalo police detective.

"The residents continue to cry out for more police visibility," Rivera added.

Derenda said 13 officers assigned to the new unit are recent police recruits, while four are being transferred from the department's Mobile Response Unit.

The officers assigned to the housing unit would be able to respond to emergencies or other situations that occur in neighborhoods bordering housing complexes, Derenda said. The Housing Authority will not "control our officers," he said.

"I made it very clear to [the Housing Authority] that these are Buffalo police officers. They work for the Buffalo Police Department," Derenda said.

Tenants in public housing complexes make up nearly 5 percent of the city's population, according to Derenda. He added that the new unit dedicates only 2.5 percent of police resources to authority properties.

Elaine Diallo, president of the Shaffer Village housing complex's resident council and a newly elected authority resident commissioner, told lawmakers she supports the creation of the unit. She said she has seen the quality of life at the housing complex deteriorate in the two decades she has lived there.

"I'm not really at peace with the circumstances [of] what's going on at Shaffer Village," she said.

The payment that the Housing Authority will make to the city by tapping federal grants will help pay for police overtime, supporters of the contract have argued.

Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith echoed other lawmakers' views when he suggested that the Housing Authority made a mistake by abolishing its public safety division 5 1/2 years ago as a cost-saving measure.

The full Council could vote on the proposed contract with the Housing Authority as early as today.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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