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Intensifying fight on crime; Stopping gun violence is a summer priority in Falls

As summer begins, the days don't get lazier, but tougher, for city cops who have made stopping gun violence and patrolling business districts their top priorities in the coming months.

Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante said that some of the more recent gun-related crimes in the city are driven by addicts looking for ways to get drugs.

"I'm not saying that drug [arrests] aren't important," said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella, "but I'm happier when [weapons also are seized] and we are able to get these weapons off the street."

Last September, the Police Department's Narcotics Investigation Division began a six-month undercover operation to get illegal guns off the street by buying them, using $50,000 in grant money from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

"We were able to secure 55 long guns and handguns. That's a very good year for us, and we did it in six months," Chella said of the operation.

Assault weapons, which were seized in recent raids by city police, are especially disturbing, he said.

"They have the capability of firing many rounds quickly," Chella said. "The different types of weapons [found in these raids] is what is disconcerting.

He pointed to a March 8 arrest of Marcus V. Pea, 24, of 12th Street.

Police who raided Pea's home said they found six bags of powdered cocaine, weighing nearly 4 grams, but also four long guns, including a sawed-off shotgun, and two handguns. All the weapons were loaded when the police emergency response team forced its way inside, Chella said. Numerous rounds of ammunition also were recovered.

A raid in a nice neighborhood on Cayuga Island in the city also netted a cache of guns May 25.

Vincent J. Quarcini, 49, faces weapons and drug charges after he was found with 10 long guns, including two assault rifles with fully loaded ammunition clips, two handguns, a large quantity of high-powered ammunition and drugs, including seven bags of cocaine packaged for sale, and narcotic tablets, following a search of his home on West Rivershore Drive, police said.

Chella said that despite the police push, these weapons are still making their way to the streets.

"From the middle of April to the beginning of May, we charted 14 separate incidents in which people, vehicles or homes were shot or shot at," he said, referring to recent police computer statistics.

No serious injuries were reported, Chella added, and the situation seems to have quieted down in recent weeks.
To target gun-related crime, officers are using a Gun Reduction and Violence Eradication program, or GRAVE, as a part of their Operation IMPACT. All violent acts in the last five years that involved the firing of a weapon -- as well as serious assault and/or rape -- are recorded in the department's computer system. Anyone in that database who was arrested in the previous 18 months becomes part of the GRAVE list.

"If anyone is on the list -- which went out to the county sheriff, state police and [Niagara Falls police] -- and is stopped, no break," Chella said. "And when we bring that case to the district attorney, no plea [bargain]. We don't specifically target people, but the computer gives us an objective list."

Dona L. Chase is an administrative assistant in the District Attorney's Office who helps prepare the Operation IMPACT grant, a program that's beginning its eighth year July 1 and providing countywide funding from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services to fight crime in hard-hit areas of the state.

"The Niagara Falls Police Department and the Sheriff's Department utilize crime-tracking software to help spot crime trends," Chase said.

>Business district safety

The City of Niagara Falls routinely receives more than $350,000, more than half of the $500,000 to $600,000 in state funding provided to the county by Operation IMPACT. The program has allowed the city to fund an analyst who provides computer-assisted crime-tracking statistics, called ComStat, allowing officers to spot trends and look at crime more closely in real time.

"It's not just tracking crime, but tracking whole areas," Violante said. "We know the 19th Street corridor is a problem for drug use and prostitution, but by tracking, we can know there has been a significant increase in burglaries or car thefts in the tourist area, near the state park and the casino."

There also are enhanced patrols as part of the department's city-funded business district initiative.

Starting June 1, Safe Shopping Days are held once or twice a week at one of seven business districts. New this year is a business liaison in the Police Department, Officer David M. Cudahy, who will meet with business owners to find out about their concerns.

"A safe business district is economic development," Chella said.

What the public won't see, he said, is that through ComStat, the department will identify problem areas and have officers out in force, either in uniform or undercover, on an overtime basis to address crimes such as burglaries, car break-ins and shoplifting.

"Through IMPACT, we have 14 partners and can draw on people like the state police or Border Patrol or Town of Niagara. We are all working together, finally," Chella said.

>Ideas readily exchanged

Chella said Niagara was one of 12 counties in the state obligated to do a gun violence reduction component as part of its IMPACT grant because it is among the top dozen counties in the state in reported aggravated assaults. Buffalo and Erie County are also are on the list.

The Falls department will use its computer analyst and GRAVE to chart gun violence and will target weapons possession and related crimes. Under certain circumstances, federal charges will be pursued, which can increase prison sentences, Chella said.

Violante called Operation IMPACT a "good news, bad news grant."

"IMPACT sends us money to assist us in fighting crime. That's the good news," he said. "But the bad news is we need it to fight crime and are one of the areas the state is focusing on."

Violante said GRAVE, which addresses repeat offenders, is making it tougher for criminals.

The program isn't new, but the concept has been changed, focusing not just on felony offenders, but repeat misdemeanor offenders, the district attorney said.

"If an offender is in city courts four or five times on misdemeanor charges, we are treating them the same way as felony offenders. They are not going to get off on a plea and hopefully will get significant jail time," Violante said.

Fifteen law enforcement agencies -- including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Border Patrol; the State Police and State Park Police; and city, town and village police -- all meet monthly as part of Operation IMPACT.

Sharing of information with assistant district attorneys, who attend bimonthly ComStat meetings, also is a vital aspect of the crime-fighting effort.

"The exchange of ideas is extremely helpful," Violante said. "The tragedy of years past was agencies wouldn't ask for help. That doesn't happen anymore. There is a great deal of communication on a regular basis."

Chella wants the communication to extend to the community.

"If you know where guns are, please tell us," Chella said. "We are going to rely on the consciousness of the public. If you know where a weapon is, let us know before that weapon either destroys a life or destroys a family."

Chella said tips can be made confidentially by calling 286-4591.

"We are making more arrests this year, up 15 percent from last year, and last year was a record year, up 34 percent over '09," Chella said. "We are light-years ahead of where we were years ago."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com