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Niagara prosecutors try frank talk to steer offenders to better path

Eight young men took their seats as invited guests of police and prosecutors at a recent meeting in Niagara Falls.

Then they sat back and listened.

E. Bryan DalPorto, who heads the Niagara Falls Police Department, told them they are considered among the potentially most dangerous offenders in Niagara Falls .

"I see some of you smirking, some of you look surprised," DalPorto said. "But I'm sure deep down, most of you know that's not a real big surprise to any of us. We know through intelligence what you guys are up to."

Some stared straight ahead. Some pointed and laughed as mugshots of recently arrested felons were projected on a giant screen. They recognized some of the faces.

"They sat in those same exact chairs and didn't heed that warning," DalPorto of those in the mugshots.

During the hourlong meeting, none of the young men said anything to DalPorto or to the other speakers.

Since 2015, Niagara and Erie counties have held occasional meetings like this one. The young offenders, already on probation or parole, are brought to the meetings after police learn they have not done all they could to stay out of trouble.

Few of those in previous meetings in Niagara Falls were later arrested. But few took advantage of the educational and counseling programs promoted at the sessions.

"When you're talking to an offender directly, they know that you know them," said Craig Rivera, a criminal justice professor at Niagara University who has researched the roots of violent crime in the city.

"When you stand up at a meeting and talk to them and use their name, the research shows that personal connection really helps," Rivera said. "In their mind, it increases the certainty of getting caught, which increases the deterrent effect."

The July 13 meeting in the Niagara Falls Public Library was set up under a state-sponsored program called GIVE - Gun-Involved Violence Elimination - used in 17 counties since 2014. Meeting with felons is one way the program tries to reach its goal of reducing violent crime.

A Buffalo News reporter was allowed to sit in on the meeting and interview some of the participants on the condition the offenders not be identified nor their criminal records revealed.

"That just shows that they're watching. I don't want to be on the next mugshot," a 24-year-old offender later told The News.

"We gotta calm down before we get where they got," an 18-year-old offender added.

Prosecutors' warning

The first half of the meeting featured tough talk from prosecutors.

"Some of you, I've prosecuted," said Assistant District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann, Niagara County's top prosecutor of violent crimes.

"I don't want to meet your mothers or your grandmothers in my office crying because you're dead," Hoffmann said. "I don't want to see you in a courtroom, but if you continue to do what you're doing, I will, and I won't be smiling."

Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy talked about the long sentences frequently mandated in federal court.

But he also told the men they can go straight and save their own lives.

"You guys got to understand, when you make bad decisions, the person you're hurting most is yourself," Kennedy said. "You guys need to start making the right decisions. You're one decision away from a totally different life."

"There's not one of you here who can't get away from this," Hoffmann said.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said in an interview the message of the meetings is plain.

"We want you to stop your behavior. You will get no plea," she said. "We will try your case and you will go to jail, or we're going to be prosecuting someone because you're going to be dead."

Niagara University researchers say small group accounts for most Niagara Falls gunfire

Pastor's lament

Rev. Raymond Allen, an African-American clergyman from the Falls, presided at the meeting. He told the offenders - all African-American men - that much of the violence in the city results from African-Americans attacking other African-Americans.

"We're killing each other," Allen told them. "Our community will not tolerate violence. Our community needs you safe and alive, and most of all, free."

Richard Thomas of the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers handed out plastic forks to the eight young men, to make the point that they are at a fork in the road.

"I'm a free black man. I can do anything I want to do," Thomas said.

Police chief's plea

"You've been forewarned. You've been identified," DalPorto told the young criminals.

Niagara University criminal justice professor Timothy Lauger said GIVE-style meetings with direct contact with criminals began in Boston in the late 1990s and have spread around the country.

He and Rivera have done research that shows most of the violence in the Falls can be attributed to a small group of as few as 20 people, with 19th Street the epicenter of the trouble.

"We don't have a rampant crime problem," DalPorto said at the July 13 meeting. "We have a small amount of people committing a large amount of crimes."

He urged the young men not to be among those criminals.

"You guys are the most vulnerable to be killed or put in jail for the rest of your lives," DalPorto told them.

"What we're here to do today is offer you a way out. Do it for your mom, do it for your kids, do it for someone you love, but we want you out of the game. We want you to put down your guns," the police superintendent said.

"I'm not looking for cooperation," he added. "I'm not looking for you to be a rat. I'm not looking for you to snitch. I'm just looking for you to put down your guns. Don't kill anybody. Don't shoot at anybody. Don't get shot at. Don't be killed. That's really what we want. Our goal here is to make everyone safe, our whole community."

Hearing about loss

John Figueroa served 16 1/2 years in prison for robbing two people with a razor blade in New York City at age 16.

"Sometimes when you come from certain neighborhoods, certain environments, certain types of lifestyles, you believe that's all you can ever be," Figueroa told the Niagara Falls offenders. "I got a bachelor's degree. I'm currently a graduate student. I run a youth mentoring program in Buffalo. I'm doing things I never dreamed of because I made a decision that 'I want to change.' "

The offenders also heard painful words from a mother.

"I'm here today because my son was shot eight times," said Patricia Hamilton of Niagara Falls. "My son's paralyzed from the waist down.

"I didn't do nothing to anybody to deserve this," Hamilton said. "These people, they don't really want to put you in jail. They want you to find a better way."

Jason J. Flores, the "smart on crime coordinator" for the U.S. Attorney's Office, told the men that when he was 15 and growing up on Buffalo's East Side, someone put a gun to his face and fired.

"I kid you not: He missed me, man. Missed me! I should be dead right now," Flores said.

One of his brothers, who made several trips to prison, is dead, shot in the back of the head in 2013. The other has been to prison and became a heroin addict whose life was saved from overdoses twice within eight hours.

When Flores was 16, his older brother and some friends decided to rob someone and asked Flores to go along.

"I decided, I'm not going. It was my choice to make. All of them are dead or in jail right now," Flores said.

"When does this end? Choices, right?" Flores told the young criminals. "Employment, education, these are the things that set you apart."

"Whoever doesn't redirect their course after today and make better decisions for themselves: Sorry, fellas, you asked for it," Figueroa said.

'My opportunity'

The batting average for the GIVE program seems good. Of the 19 men called in for meetings in June 2016 and January of this year, only four were subsequently arrested, according to the Niagara County District Attorney's Office.

A couple of young offenders who met with a reporter had differing views about what they heard.

"After this, they're not going to care," a 24-year-old offender said. "They probably had that meeting because they had to have that meeting. However they picked us, they picked us, but it did have an impact. It showed that I chose the right path."

There was a pizza party after the meeting, but the eight offenders spent most of the time talking to their probation officers - not the police, prosecutors or other speakers.

"They had that meeting, but after that, they're not thinking about us no more," the 24-year-old offender said. "My probation officer is the one that's gonna deal with me on a daily basis. If I have a problem, I'm gonna call her before I call them."

Flores' account of his brother's death didn't impress the 18-year-old.

"If that was my brother, somebody would have ended up dead next," he said. "I don't think I would have been able to just swallow that and say, 'I'm gonna change my life because my brother got killed.' "

The teenager said he could change his ways anytime he decides to do so.

"I feel like, if I want to change, I'm gonna change within myself," he said. "If it's something I wouldn't do, I'm gonna do what I need. Nobody else tell me what they did. I don't care about what you did, honestly."

But the 24-year-old probationer seemed open to the messages he heard.

"This is my opportunity," he said. "I'm a law-abiding citizen now. I don't do nothing wrong. All it did was put a staple in the foundation of the path I took. I did make the right decision. It was like a confirmation from God."

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