NIAGARA FALLS – Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., last week called Niagara Falls' new crime-fighting agreement with the federal government an "exciting new resource" aimed at curbing crime and spurring development.
The partnership, one of only eight that will begin next year across the nation, will bring federal experts to the city to analyze crime trends and help local police officials and community leaders develop a plan for decreasing both violent and petty crimes.
Few doubt that the city can use the help.
Despite an overall decrease in crime last year, assaults and larcenies in the city are up once again, and two recent Niagara Falls homicides have gripped the region.
"While it won't be a silver bullet, it's going to be a lot of heat on criminals who think they can continue to jeopardize the safety of people who live in, work in and visit this great city," Schumer said last week.
City block club leader Roger L. Spurback said the partnership couldn't come at a better time.
"The city doesn't have the money. The state doesn't have the money. We need to reach out to the feds to bring some money to do things in different ways," said Spurback, chairman of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council.
Two areas of particular interest, Spurback said, should be gang violence and shootings, as well as tourism-related car robberies. A deeper look at Niagara Falls' crime problems reveals a city dealing with issues common to most urban areas – robbery, domestic violence, serious assaults and shootings.
Falls police officials early last year teamed with county law enforcement to combat a rise in the number of burglaries, many of which were related to the addiction of prescription painkillers. Police that year arrested a city doctor dubbed "Dr. Feel Good" who authorities said was one of the state's top distributors of prescription drugs.
The strategy appeared to work, as police later in the year announced that overall crime numbers were down. Robberies, aggravated assault, larcenies and total crime reports all fell from September 2010 to September 2011, a decrease that officials attributed in part to its ability to more effectively track the crimes and determine patterns in different areas of the city.
If 2011 was a respite or a victory in the fight against city crime, this year has proven to be anything but.
Crime statistics show the year-by-year results to be a mixed bag, with instances of shootings and rape down by 12 percent and 18 percent, respectively, and robberies to be about the same as last year.
Two areas have been particularly concerning to Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella, though.
Larcenies are up by 17 percent from last year, he said, while assaults are up by 18 percent.
The Police Department has intensified its focus on the home and business larcenies, meeting with businesses such as 7-Eleven, Tops Markets and Walmart to give store workers more crime-prevention tips. Chella said the department has also devoted one officer to help businesses by watching store camera footage and assisting in the sea of court paperwork that accompanies a larceny charge.
Many of the violent assaults, Chella said, involve a suspect and a victim who know each other, and often the victim is unwilling to assist in the investigation of a domestic dispute, making it more difficult for police. "It's not like an innocent person walking down the street is assaulted," he said. "It's usually suspect-victim familiarization."
Year-to-year, the city has seen an increase in homicides, and this year's four victims are a slight uptick in the number from most years, Chella said. The grisly, high-profile nature of two of the crimes put more of a spotlight on Niagara Falls violence than in other years, he said. One victim's body was found dismembered in the Niagara River, police said, and there also was a young girl found dead in a downtown trash bin.
"Some made national news, so unfortunately it paints Niagara Falls in a bad picture," Chella said. "One homicide is one too many, but when it's that sensational, it stays in the press a lot longer, and there's a perception that Niagara Falls is not safe. [That's] not true."
But officials acknowledge that perception – especially in the downtown tourism district – is, for many, reality. They also say the majority of crimes committed last year – more than 80 percent – were crimes of property theft, ranging from car burglaries to the theft of copper and other items in the city's scores of vacant houses.
Just last week, city police were investigating three burglaries that occurred in the downtown and Niagara Falls Boulevard tourism districts, including one woman who lost more than $2,100 worth of property when her car was broken into near Niagara Falls State Park. "You can't neglect the taxpayers of the city, but we know between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we're going to see a spike because [of the tourist season], so we're making sure we're doing everything we can to make the tour a pleasurable one," Chella said.
Travelers from rural areas, Chella said, have more regularly been victims of car break-ins because many leave global positioning systems and other valuables in plain view. In recent years, police have increased bike patrols and used trend-tracking analysis to combat the spikes in tourism-related crime.
The analysis is made possible with help from what police call Operation IMPACT, a state program that has given the department hundreds of thousands of dollars for nearly a decade to pay for computer analysis of crime trends. The new federal funds should only help with that analysis, Chella said, while suggesting new federal crime-fighting tactics for the city to implement.
"What this does is it allows us to not only have a continuous set of eyes looking out for us, but these sets of eyes are national eyes," he said. "They probably have programs we are not aware of on how to combat and decrease numbers."
Schumer agreed that the new federal program, which will begin in the next few months, will help the city secure Department of Justice grants that assist in the fight against street crime.
"Niagara Falls will have an advantage over all but seven cities in the country – the other cities that have this program," he said.