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Partnership for the Public Good urges more responsive police presence at BMHA complexes

The first homicide of 2015 was on Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority property when a 19-year-old was gunned down 100 feet from his front door. It was a low mark in the ongoing problem of policing 31 public housing complexes with more than 12,000 residents, and a stark reminder of the challenge facing tenants, administrators and law enforcement.

Public policy advocates are also getting into the mix.

Safety concerns in Buffalo’s public housing properties prompted the Partnership for the Public Good, representing 185 community groups, to issue a policy brief titled “Poverty, Race, and Community Policing in Buffalo” on Friday. Details of the paper were presented Sam Magavern, the partnership’s co-director, at the annual Buffalo Poverty Research Workshop.

“Public safety is a big concern for people who live in public housing, many of whom are elderly, disabled or children,” Magavern told an audience of about 200 students, social service workers and advocates. “Are police overly focused on stop and frisk and making arrests, or is the goal building community?”

He repeated BMHA residents’ complaints that some fear for their safety in their own homes, and that police have been heavy-handed in using stop-and-frisk tactics and charging residents and visitors with trespassing – charges that are almost always dismissed – while failing to respond quickly to serious crimes.

The partnership recommended that police officers have consistent beats, get out of their cars more and build better relationships with residents.

That is exactly what the police are trying to do, a Buffalo Police Department representative said.

Lt. Steve Nichols, the department’s community outreach coordinator, called the partnership’s brief a surprise.

Nichols said his office was never contacted by the partnership or Open Buffalo, another organization promoting more community policing, while they did their research. Nichols said he was not aware of Friday’s workshop.

“We have been doing community policing in the BMHA sites since we started the policing there,” Nichols said.

That was in 2010.

Nichols said that in the past two years, the department has quietly increased its focus on outreach and interaction at BMHA properties and in other parts of the community, making connections that go beyond responding to calls for help.

“We’re trying to be active in all the complexes. We are helping set up some Crime Watch programs there and we are helping with the (spring) clean-ups,” he said. “We are doing community gardens and we attend as many of the community functions as possible.”

At properties like the Kenfield-Langfield housing development, where a teenager was shot and killed last year and where another was wounded earlier this month, residents are demanding more. They want more police presence and more officers stationed nearby.

Nichols said that the longtime residents there have been “extremely active,” working with Buffalo Peacekeepers and the police, and that the department is responding.

The BMHA’s five-year contract provides for $650,000 annually for “above baseline services” with the Buffalo Police Department. It’s up for renewal May 1.

One member of the housing authority’s board of commissioners said the policy brief from the Partnership for the Public Good comes rather late.

“They’re coming in almost at the tail end of what we’re doing,” said Joe Mascia, tenant representative on the BMHA board. “The tenants group has already presented a plan. The tenants want a mostly private security force with support from the public police. The Housing Authority has a plan, the tenants have a plan, and now the PPG has a plan.”

Overall, according to a report to the BMHA Public Safety Committee in early March, the number of police calls dropped by 21 percent in February 2015 from January, and down 12 percent from February 2014.

In three complexes, calls went up: Commodore Perry, Frank Sedita Apartments and Jasper Parrish.

Of all the incidents reported, 48 percent came from three sites: Kenfield, Shaeffer Village and Commodore Perry.

The calls ranged from requests to check on the welfare of people in the bitter cold and complaints about damage to cars in the snowy parking lots to threats, domestic violence and shots fired.

Advocates of improved community policing said arrest statistics are only part of the public safety picture.

Magavern said a larger goal should be to “cut crime rather than respond to it” by developing closer relationships between police and housing residents and by implementing a policy dubbed LEAD, “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.” That’s when officers help resolve disputes and diffuse situations rather than arrest and charge individuals.

Nichols said the Buffalo Police Department shares that goal and would be willing to take part in future meetings with Open Buffalo and the partnership, just as officers already attend community meetings with BMHA residents.

“I will go to anything,” Nichols said. “We will definitely talk to them and work with them. There is strength in numbers.”

email: mmiller@buffnews.com