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Buffalo homicide rate drops 35 percent as it soars in other cities

Alonte Works, just 15 years old, crept behind parked cars to get a close shot at the man nearly twice his age.

Jonathan Jones stood outside a store on the 400 block of Fillmore Avenue that October night.

The teen’s surprise succeeded, police say, as he leaped out from between the vehicles and fired his shotgun at point-blank range, instantly killing the 29-year-old Jones with a load of buckshot.

Gang-related violence like this is common in Buffalo, according to police. But it dropped by more than a third last year.

That made Buffalo a safer place to live, as the number of homicides declined from 62 in 2014 to 40 last year.

Buffalo’s 35 percent reduction in killings occurred at the same time that many of America’s major cities – like Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis – experienced substantial increases.

City police officials and academics cited several factors for the local decrease:

• Fewer males in their mid-teens to mid-20s, a demographic known for violence;

• Narcotics and intelligence units making more than 500 raids on gang-operated drug houses in 2015 in which drugs, cash, weapons and in some cases bulletproof vests were confiscated;

• Police removal of more than 800 guns from the streets last year, which was about 60 more than the previous year; and

• An improving local economy that is providing job opportunities.

Homicide detectives solved 16 of last year’s killings and an additional 18 from previous years.

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Map: Homicides in Buffalo in 2015

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Fewer homicides is a good sign for the city, but more needs to be done, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

“Although our homicides are substantially down, as we’ve always said, one homicide is one too many,” Derenda said.

Just 12 homicides occurred during the first half of 2015, but the pace picked up in September, the deadliest month when 12 people were slain.

One of the most shocking murders of the year happened on the first day of September. Juan Ortiz Santiago was in his barber shop on Niagara Street giving a customer a haircut when two men entered at 11:30 a.m. and shot the 28-year-old barber.

The motive was never disclosed, though police indicated Santiago may have taken the side of a friend in an earlier dispute. Victor Martinez, 29, and Luis Olivera, 24, were later charged with second-degree murder.

A shooting at 3:15 p.m. that same day on the East Side illustrates how violence begets more violence.

Damon Hall, 22, of the Town of Tonawanda was fatally shot as he stepped outside a clothing store on the 1000 block of Broadway. Authorities believe Hall was present at a homicide Aug. 30, when his companion Shawndale Lipscomb, 26, allegedly shot and killed Anthony L. Stallworth, 34, another Town of Tonawanda resident, in the town’s Sheridan-Parkside neighborhood. Lipscomb also met a violent end. He was shot and killed on the first block of Ivy Street in Buffalo on Oct. 8. Police described the killings of Hall and Lipscomb as cases of street justice for the slaying of Stallworth.

Two double homicides occurred in 2015.

The first was in the afternoon of Sept. 5, when Abdul Coleman, 34, and Eric Pabon, 30, were fatally shot as they sat in a vehicle parked on the 500 block of Michigan Avenue.

The other double murder occurred shortly after 6 p.m. Oct. 30, again in a car, on the 1200 block of Fillmore Avenue when a gunman opened fire. Jermaine Moss, 21, died in the car. Norman Fullenweider, 19, managed to get out of the vehicle, even though he was hit 11 times. Fullenweider asked for help and a resident drove him to Erie County Medical Center, where he died.

Both double homicides were classified as gang related and remain unsolved.

Oldest and youngest

The oldest person slain last year was Lenora Tyes, 67. Her 38-year-old son, William Tyes, is accused of beating her to death Feb. 10 in her home on the 400 block of Dodge Street.

The youngest homicide victim was 5-month-old Vernay-lah Laventure. Denay Foster, the infant’s 23-year-old mother, was charged with beating her to death on Sept. 23 in the West Side home they shared on the 300 block of 14th Street.

The reduction in homicides last year might have a lot to do with a change in demographics, said professor Martin Floss, who chairs the graduate program in criminal justice administration at Hilbert College.

“While going from 62 to 40 homicides is certainly a positive sign, it could be a statistical fluctuation. We really can’t say that this is because things have changed,” he said. “I think it could be explained by demographics. It looks like the age of people who shoot and kill, 16- to 25-year-old males, has dropped by a couple thousand in that age category over the last several years. So if there are fewer young males in the city, there are going to be fewer shootings.”

Gang homicides

The most difficult of homicides to solve are those committed by gang members, where even friends of the victims often don’t want to talk to police. And they often seek their own form of justice.

“It’s an unfortunate reality,” Homicide Capt. Joseph A. Gramaglia said of the lack of cooperation from gangs.

Twenty-one of last year’s 40 homicides were classified as gang or drug related, and of those killings, only four were solved. Two years ago, 32 of Buffalo’s 62 homicides were gang related.

One of the few that was solved was Alonte Works’ shotgun slaying of Jonathan Jones. Works, 15, had the distinction of being the youngest person charged with second-degree murder in 2015.

Gramaglia explained that when a homicide is classified as gang-drug related, either the victim or the suspected killer, or both, had ties to gang life.

“If you take the gang homicide aspect out of the annual number of homicides, the number of killings is much lower,” Gramaglia said. “In gang murders, it is often gang members shooting gang members.”

Cold cases solved

The 18 cold cases solved last year represented years of work that happened to come to fruition in 2015, Gramaglia said.

He expects more cold cases will be cleared in the coming months.

“We are getting very close to a significant amount of additional cases being cleared from prior years,” Gramaglia said, crediting cooperation between citizens and the police in helping make the difference. “Homicide detectives are working very hard, but it always comes down to working with the public and our department does a very good job in working with the community.”

Fewer guns on the streets has also curtailed the number of killings.

“The amount of gun arrests and gun recoveries by patrol officers, narcotics and intelligence detectives puts a significant dent in the gang members’ ability to obtain guns,” Gramaglia said.

Heavy black toll

Homicides continue to take a big toll on the African-American community. Thirty-two victims of last year’s homicide were black, while four were white and four were Hispanic.

And again, police cite gang violence as the reason. Gang killings frequently involve blacks killing blacks.

The Rev. James E. Giles, coordinator of the Buffalo Peacemakers, says he wants to reduce the gang violence and has a plan that he hopes to implement in the coming months.

Rather than only serving as a deterrent to criminal activity by spotting trouble before it erupts, Giles says he envisions the Peacemakers spending more time in gang-infested neighborhoods and providing guidance to young people.

“We are changing the strategy to focus directly on the gang activity that takes place in our community as opposed to just having a presence set up to deter violence at major functions such as festivals and safe passages at schools,” Giles said. “We’re going to patrol hot-spot areas. We’ll be doing it daily so that we will become part of that, if you will, ecosystem, the community, so that everybody will know us and we will know them.”

This approach, he said, has already worked on sections of Bailey Avenue where Peacemakers, who wear a distinctive gold T-shirt with the words “Buffalo Peacemakers,” began conducting patrols in late 2014. The result was fewer gang shootings, Giles said.

Interaction produces accountability, he said.

“Instead of going out and shooting someone, a gang member will call us and say, ‘Listen, those guys are saying a lot of stuff on Facebook about us, and we aren’t going to accept that. We’re getting ready to roll over there.’ But by making the call, it gives us a chance to speak to that, to say, ‘Hold on, let me go over and talk to you and your brothers.’ We are stopping the reaction to respond. We’re putting that at bay,” Giles said.

Such contact also provides the chance to encourage positive change in the lives of young people.

“We advocate to get them going in a new direction, back in school, to a GED program or vocational program. It’s that interaction that gradually changes what they would normally do,” he said.

The Peacemakers include 11 half-time staff members receiving modest stipends and about 20 volunteers. Funding for the group is provided by the city, the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. Grateful for the support, Giles said he hopes Erie County will consider contributing to the organization, since violence in the city can spill out into the suburbs.

“Our belief is that if we can stop the gang homicides, it not only greatly reduces the annual number of homicides, but helps with the clearance rate on the incidental homicides, the ones that are not planned out,” Giles said, explaining that homicide detectives can focus more on those cases.

As for the approach police will take in this new year, Commissioner Derenda had a warning for gang members:

“Not only will our efforts to rid the city of violence continue, but they will intensify.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com