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Homicide rate drops to lowest in decade; Effort to rid streets of 'the worst of the worst' brings figure down to 36 murders

Buffalo's murder rate for 2011 dropped to its lowest in more than a decade and represents a downward trend for the second year in a row.

Thirty-six individuals -- ranging from a 1-year-old girl to an 84-year-old man -- lost their lives to violence last year, representing an almost 40 percent drop from 2010, when 55 were homicide victims.

And while 2011 was far from the deadliest year in Buffalo, city police say one homicide is too many.

"Our strategy in 2011 was simple, target the worst of the worst, work with our federal and state partners to remove violent gang members and work closely with our community partners," Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said. "Our efforts seem to have paid off with the reduction in violence and homicides."

Back in 1999, homicides dipped to 32, a statistical "anomaly," according to police. Before that, the last time the city had fewer than 34 homicides in one year was 26 years ago when there were 33 slayings in 1985.

That may sound impressive, but keep in mind that in the mid-1960s, it was not unusual for the city's homicides to number 20 or fewer. Those low numbers are even more striking when taking into account that the city's population was nearly 500,000, compared with roughly half that number in more recent years.

As for the current downward trend, that could be short-lived.

Consider these numbers:

In 2008, there were 37 homicides.

In 2009, there were 60.

In 2000, homicides dipped to 39.

But the next year, murder returned with a vengeance to 66.

So what does this mean?

The short answer is homicide trends remain difficult to predict. Law enforcement officials and community leaders offer a longer answer.

Concerted efforts to crush drug gangs, remove guns from the hands of criminals and take proactive steps in giving young people meaningful alternatives to street life are all part of the mix for reducing homicides, they say.

"We took out the 10th Street Gang and the Seventh Street Gang on the West Side in 2010," said Dennis J. Richards, chief of Buffalo detectives, referring to a major collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Arresting dozens of criminals from the same network had a lasting impact, compared with picking them off one by one, Derenda explained.

These major sweeps in putting gangs behind bars not only reduced homicides but other violence, with 2011 seeing an overall drop in violent crime by 9 percent compared with 2010, the commissioner said.

"Our continued efforts to remove these violent individuals from our streets will not only continue but intensify in 2012," Derenda said.

In praising the "passion and intelligence" of hard-working city police officers, Mayor Byron W. Brown said criminals will indeed be under greater scrutiny in the new year.

"Police surveillance cameras are going to expand in 2012. We have 125 right now and hope to add another 25," Brown said.

To the relatives of homicide victims, Brown and Derenda made a special point of acknowledging their losses.

"As we always say, one homicide is one too many, and that's why we work so hard to try to get to the point where one day, hopefully, there will be no homicides in the city of Buffalo," the mayor said.

Of the collaborative efforts, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said he is more than willing to make use of his arsenal of federal laws, which carry stiffer penalties than state laws.

"From the beginning of my administration, there has been a priority placed on prosecuting violent street criminals. The assistant U.S. attorneys in my office have worked long and hard in identifying the worst of the worst," Hochul said.

And Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he is enforcing a no-plea policy for individuals charged with possession of weapons.

"If I can take the gun-toting thug off the street, the homicide rate will go down and the streets will be safer," Sedita said. "I believe that the vast majority of those carrying around concealed and unlicensed weapons are doing so because it is their desire to commit a violent felony, including murder."

Convictions for criminal possession of a weapon carry a minimum sentence of 3 1/2 years and can stretch to a maximum of 15 years behind bars, Sedita said.

But law enforcement officials agree it will take more than just harsh punishment for a sustained reduction in homicides.

"We have rejuvenated our local Exile Program, which brings together representatives of multiple community groups including clergy, community action organizations, Buffalo police and police from first-ring suburbs on a monthly basis to discuss options and strategies for reducing violent crime," he said.

Criminals who continue in their violent ways can expect FBI agents and other members of the FBI's Safe Street Task Force to be paying close attention.

"The Safe Street Task Force is charged with dismantlement of the major gangs that are operating in Buffalo," said Steven L. Lanser, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Buffalo Office.

The local task force recently received a national award, recognizing it as one of the country's most productive in taking down violent gangs.

"That award has resulted in increased funding for the local task force," Lanser said.

Community activists say their role also contributes to reducing violence, and police agree.

"Homicides are going to continue to go down because we are doing the proactive things that are necessary to keep our young people out of trouble," said George Johnson, president of Buffalo United Front, an umbrella organization that brings together neighborhood groups.

Activities include organizing sporting events and field trips to broaden the perspective of youngsters who live in rough neighborhoods.

"We expose them to different things than just seeing from their house to the corner and from the corner to the school. We have to expose them to different things they don't normally see to change their mindset," Johnson said.

In addition, community groups are banking on the power of prayer to guide them in alleviating violence.

The "Enough Is Enough" prayer campaign -- started by church pastor and Ellicott District Council Member the Rev. Darius Pridgen in the fall of 2010 -- has reached into numerous city neighborhoods, visiting 40 churches and more than 10 sites where violence occurred last summer.

"Enough is Enough" began after 15-year-old Dominique Maye was killed by a bullet fired into her aunt's Hewitt Avenue home in 2010.

"Prayer is making a big difference. As we pray, God gives us direction on what we need to do in our communities," Johnson said.

Education also plays a major role in thwarting homicides, said Joy McDuffie, chairwoman of the dropout prevention committee of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

The graduation rate in Buffalo public high schools is currently 47 percent.

"If we increase our high school graduation rate, we will increase the quality of life in our distressed neighborhoods and the homicide rate will continue to decline with other crime rates declining as well," McDuffie said.

Lack of education, she said, sows the seeds of violence.

"There is a direct correlation that the higher the educational attainment level, the higher the income level and the lower the rate of crime amongst any demographic," McDuffie said.

Buffalo is not the only community experiencing a significant drop in homicides. The most recent statewide figures for the first six months of 2011 registered a 14.5 percent reduction.

And preliminary figures indicate that trend has persisted well into the second half of 2011, state officials said.

Buffalo's 38 percent drop in homicides for 2011 is in part credited to the crucial role played by Erie County Medical Center, according to Chief Richards.

Violent attacks that would normally end in death are often turned into serious assaults because of the swift action of the hospital emergency room's trauma team, Richards said.

Yet even with all of the progress in saving lives through medical intervention, collaborative law enforcement efforts and community measures to turn around at-risk young people, even one homicide is too much for those who have lost a loved one.

Consider these slayings from 2011:

*Juan "Shorty" Castro, fueled by drugs and jealousy, went to his girlfriend's West Side home with a large sword in hand on Jan. 17. He killed Maria Pagan, 45, and critically injured her 15-year-old daughter, who survived. Pagan was last year's second homicide.

*Eighteen year-old Tyler Hunter, the city's 31st homicide on Oct. 16, dreamed of becoming a professional football player. If that plan did not succeed, he wanted to be a professional sports announcer. He never got the chance. A single gunshot wound outside a friend's Birch Place house, just around the block from ECMC, ended his life.

*Fourteen-year-old She'mar Toran Beason, Buffalo's second youngest homicide victim last year, ran back inside the Riverside apartment he was staying at to brush his teeth before heading to church Nov. 13.

Inside the house, he suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. When police arrived, the gun used in the shooting had disappeared. Authorities say he may have accidentally shot himself, but those who were at the apartment have been slow in cooperating.

All of these lives ended abruptly and caused heartbreak. Perhaps best describing the emptiness was Judith Ortiz. At 47 years old, she recently married for the first time. Absent from witnessing her joy in early December was her dear friend Maria Pagan.

"I'm still depressed. I miss my friend with all my heart, and I know she would have been at my wedding if she were alive."

As for Castro receiving a prison sentence of 20 years to life, Ortiz says, "I'm satisfied with what they did to him, but it is never going to bring Maria back to us."