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Kenfield-Langfield residents ask for more police presence

As Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority residents raise questions about their safety, some city officials are asking how well the policing of authority apartments is working. Some lawmakers say they aren’t against considering a change.

“If we know we have a problem, and the system we have right now is not working, then you don’t continue the same system and leave people as almost prisoners in their homes,” said Council President Darius G. Pridgen.

“I’ve been to Kenfield-Langfield, and talked to the people,” said University District Councilman Rasheed N.C. Wyatt. “We have to listen to them, so people feel comfortable and safe. Right now they don’t feel safe.”

But as of now, it’s not clear how effective the current policing system is – or isn’t – compared to the one that was there before.

Three teenagers have been shot at BMHA properties since August and two of them died, one at Kenfield-Langfield and one at Schaeffer Village. Still, serious crime overall at all BMHA facilities is going down, said Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

Derenda noted, however, that drug activity remains a serious problem at some of complexes.

He also said the Police Department plans to add Community Policing officers to the Housing Unit as it continues looking for ways to improve police protection.

In 2010 the BMHA scrapped its own police force as a cost-saving move. The authority then contracted for $650,000 annually with the city, which created a 20-member Housing Police unit within the city Police Department. The unit provides additional services, beyond traditional police patrols, which also are provided by other officers.

The question being raised in recent weeks, particularly after a teenager was shot at Kenfield-Langfield last week, is whether contracting with city police is better than having a BMHA unit, or if perhaps there is some third alternative that is preferable.

“Residents are not provided reasonable security,” John Lipsitz, an attorney with the Lawyers Guild, said during a recent Common Council meeting in City Hall. “Police do not regularly patrol BMHA properties,” he said. “We are told police rarely take crime reports.

“Residents and guests also say they are repeatedly stopped for trespassing,” he said.

Derenda later responded that the department is complying with its contract, and said officers are not stopping people for trespassing as a form of harassment as some are alleging. The department, he said, has been addressing the illegal drug problem at some of the authority apartments. Those arrested on drug charges, he said, are warned not to return to BMHA property. Those caught violating that ban are charged with trespassing, he said.

Derenda added that the Police Department’s Housing Unit is assigned to do work beyond what regular police patrols are doing in the area, and there are times when it is more appropriate and faster for a call to be handled by the regular patrols than the Housing Unit. That could be why, he indicated, unit officers sometimes may advise residents to call 911.

At a Kenfield-Langfield apartment Crime Watch meeting Thursday evening, some residents also complained that it takes too long to get a police officer when needed. Longtime resident Carolyn Griggs said that years ago there was a police sub-station just outside the complex.

Chief Carmen J. Menza, one of a group of Buffalo police officers at the meeting, told the approximately 50 residents in attendance that the department is considering setting up such a sub-station nearby to ensure swift responses to resident calls.

A similar office is being set up at another of the BMHA complexes, police officials said.

Menza and Capt. Pat Roberts, head of the Buffalo Police Housing Unit, and Lt. Steve Nichols, head of the department’s Community Policing program, gave out their office and cellphone numbers to residents, urging them to contact any of them if they observe suspicious activity. Menza also championed the department’s confidential tipline number as a good way for residents nervous about becoming the subject of retribution to alert police to problems or situations.

At the Common Council meeting earlier in the week, Samuel Smith, president of Stuyvesant Apartments on Elmwood Avenue and chairman of the BMHA’s citywide Residents Council, praised Buffalo police as doing the best job they could, but said the BMHA needs more policing than city police can provide.

“These folks are terrified,” he said of some BMHA residents. “They are under siege in their own homes. I can’t describe to you how that must feel for a mother or father afraid for their children. Drug gangs have become entrenched in some of these developments. What we need is a security force that will be there daily, be seen by residents doing community policing daily.”

Rather than paying $650,000 for the additional city police protection, the money should go toward hiring a private security firm, Smith said.

Fillmore District Councilman David A. Franczyk said he never supported dropping a BMHA police force in favor of using city police, and would like to see the BMHA force come back.

“They need to go back to having their own police force,” he said.

But Leonard Williams, a former BHMA commissioner, urged the Council not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The BMHA in 2010 disbanded its police force because authority commissioners and residents had lost faith in the force, he said.

email: sschulman@buffnews.com and mgryta@buffnews.com