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Falls entertainment district safe for tourists, officials maintain

NIAGARA FALLS – Law enforcement officials came out in force Thursday to stress that one of the top vacation destinations in the country is safe, thanks to several police initiatives.

The officials gathered a week after a Japanese tourist testified before a Niagara County grand jury about a man accused of sexually assaulting her in December in Niagara Falls State Park. Robert E. Macleod, 44, of Niagara Falls, was indicted on charges of first-degree sexual abuse, second-degree assault and two counts of second-degree robbery.

“Single incidents that are somewhat unusual tend to be reported far more thoroughly when they have a Niagara Falls dateline,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. “And we’re very aware of that. Your chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in the City of Niagara Falls and the tourist area is exceedingly low unless you are involved with one of three things: guns, gangs and drugs. That’s what made this case so unusual.”

As a global tourist destination, Niagara Falls presents a unique challenge to crime prevention, said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto. Although the city has a population of just over 49,000, it is swarmed from Memorial Day to Labor Day by more than 8 million tourists, Dyster noted.

There were 45 property and violent crimes committed in the downtown entertainment district in 2014 and 43 last year, DalPorto said. But through April 30 of this year, he said, 27 crimes have been committed downtown – and the tourism season doesn’t start until Memorial Day weekend.

DalPorto was joined at Niagara Falls Police Department Headquarters on Main Street by representatives from State Parks Police, State Police, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, Niagara Falls Police Department and the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office.

During the news conference, Niagara County Sheriff James A. Voutour outlined a number of crime prevention initiatives to reduce downtown’s crime rate.

• Environmental design can make it harder for criminals to operate. “Any new development in Niagara Falls, specifically in the downtown area, we’re able to apply crime intervention strategies particularly in the building phase,” Voutour said. The key, added DalPorto, is the lack of places for criminals to hide.

• The Ranger ambassador program puts a dozen uniformed civilians downtown to assist tourists. They also act as the eyes and ears for police, said retired Niagara Falls Police Officer David Legault, who oversees the program.

• Sky Tower offers a mobile observation point that facilitates hot-spot policing. Voutour described the tower as critical in spotting larcenies from cars and preventing vehicle thefts.

“The police do an excellent job downtown, but there are just so many officers,” said Roger L. Spurback, former president of Niagara Falls Block Club Council. “Criminals have their patterns. Hotels using camera surveillance are watching their parking lots a lot closer.”

The attack on the tourist from Japan on Christmas Day last year occurred in a state park, and was investigated by the State Park Police.

“Every year we may have a handful of serious crimes,” said State Park Police Lt. Patrick Moriarity. “Last year we had five. The year before that we had four. So when you think about nine serious crimes over two years, that’s extremely low.”

Robert A. Zucco, assistant district attorney, credited the help of the Niagara Intelligence and Crime Analysis Center..

Kathy Isham, manager of the Smokin’ Joe’s Native Center on First Street, says she feels safe working downtown. The shop is usually open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. During tourist season it will stay open until 11 p.m.

“Right here I’ve never seen anything bad happen,” she said. “I’ve never heard anybody fear for their safety.”

Tourist destinations naturally draw criminals, Spurback said. Three years ago, police started a public awareness campaign targeting city hotels where patrons were urged not to leave valuables in their vehicles.

Public safety officials have said they’re committed to fight crime and prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law – and they’ll assist out-of-town victims who return to testify.

Koyuki Nakahara was part of a tour group when she ventured out on her own late on Christmas Day and lost her way. Police believe she was attacked by a man she asked for help.

Nakahara returned last week from Japan to testify before a grand jury. The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office paid for her airfare, room and expenses. She said she will return again for the trial.

“This case exemplifies the extent to which our office will prosecute people who commit crimes against tourists and visitors to our area,” Zucco said. “In this case we facilitated the return to Niagara County of a victim who was halfway around the world.”