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City is blind to root causes of street crime

Buffalo's 55 homicides last year were five fewer than in 2009, a decline attributed to everything from more drug raids to more citizen tips and police foot patrols.

So it's no surprise that ideas for further reducing crime in 2011 amount to rounding up those usual suspects: more cops, more cameras, more time. Citizens and politicians alike want more officers on the streets, more surveillance cameras and longer prison terms -- all of which may make sense.

But it won't stop the killing.

If the annual death toll -- which rises and falls -- goes back up this year, it won't be because law enforcement is suddenly less effective.

It will be because neighborhood conditions that make crime a survival strategy haven't been altered. That's because folks trying to alter them can't get any help from a City Hall focused on symptoms rather than causes.

At the Outsource Center on Fillmore Avenue, which prepares the unemployed for construction jobs, contractor Spencer Gaskin and his nephew, Dorian, still fund the program out of their own pockets.

They've placed about 40 people in jobs because contractors know that graduates of the 10-week course are committed. The proof? They attend the training without any stipends.

It puts a lie to the notion that inner-city folk don't want to work.

"That's a falsehood that people in power put out to explain why there are no jobs," says PUSH Buffalo Executive Director Aaron Bartley.

Some of the Gaskins' students are volunteering at a Winter Street house that PUSH is converting into a "net zero" home that will produce more energy than it uses. It has 20 solar panels, geothermal heating and a solar hot-water system, said project manager Clarke Gocker.

It's part of PUSH's effort to combine energy conservation, job training and job creation into an economic engine.

"This gives us, for the first time, a chance to prepare our people for jobs before they get here," Dorian Gaskin says of getting in on the ground floor of the "green technology" wave.

But as bodies continue to fall on the streets, the Gaskins still get no city support despite the obvious truth behind their operating philosophy: Nothing stops a bullet like a job.

Over at the Center for Hope in the refurbished Wonder Bread plant on Fougeron Street, it's even worse. Darnell Jackson not only can't get city help, he gets city hassles. The pingpong tables and other recreational equipment sit idle this week because the center has been shut in a dispute over what type of license it needs.

His successful summer jobs program, funded by the Wendt Foundation, can't be replicated this winter because he can't get funding despite City Hall's numerous pots of money. "Our kids walk in the street every morning because they can't walk on the sidewalk," he said, citing snow-shoveling as just one entry-level job that could be funded. "There are thousands of jobs out here if they'd put the money where the jobs are."

But "they" won't. Maybe because it's hard to make a news conference out of crime that doesn't occur. Maybe it's because you can't cut a ribbon when someone cashes a paycheck.

Whatever the reason, talking tough makes better politics than talking smart. But no amount of cameras or cops -- as necessary as they are -- will interrupt the supply of gunmen to replace those caught or killed as long as street life seems the only economic alternative.

Clergy this week kicked off a yearlong series of prayer vigils to combat violence. Maybe they should pray that Buffalo in 2011 stops focusing only on approaches that, by themselves, couldn't possibly stop crime and instead put its money into approaches that could.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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