Buffalo police and prosecutors realize they must do something different in order to change the fact that the city lags so far behind the national average in solving homicides.
As News staff reporter Lou Michel recently wrote, the department cleared barely more than half of the 246 killings in the last five years. The rate nationwide is 63 percent. Buffalo’s rate varied widely by year. In 2015 police cleared 84 percent of homicides a year after clearing only 27 percent.
The failure to solve homicides means killers remain on the streets able to commit more violent crimes.
One of the major factors in the low clearance rate is the reluctance of witnesses to come forward, especially in cases involving drugs or gangs.
Officials are considering increasing the reward money for witnesses, who can be conflicted about whether to come forward with information about crimes. Besides offering more money, police need to do all they can to assure potential witnesses of their safety.
Buffalo police and City Hall officials are making an effort on the witness front. District police officials hold monthly meetings with citizen groups, and community policing officers regularly work with residents. Mayor Byron W. Brown and top police officials sometimes canvass neighborhoods following homicides.
The city does fare better in new crime statistics released by the FBI. The rate of violent crime dropped by 1 percent in 2016, and the rate of all crimes dropped by 4 percent.
Nationwide the overall number of crimes dropped, although violent crime surged for the second year in a row. In Erie County as a whole, violent and nonviolent crime dropped slightly. In Niagara County, however, violent crime jumped 9 percent and overall crime rose 4 percent.
Despite Buffalo’s drop in violent crime, more must be done to address the high number of homicides that are not solved. Raising the reward money might help.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn says he is willing to have a conversation about the size of rewards. As the article stated, of the city’s 44 homicides last year, three of them were solved after individuals provided confidential information to Buffalo Crime Stoppers. Each of those people received a $2,500 reward.
Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards thinks increasing the amount of the reward could be pivotal. The district attorney is willing to consider shifting thousands of dollars to Crime Stoppers from his office’s asset-forfeiture fund. And there are state funds for witness protection Flynn could access.
There have been other steps that could help over the long run. Rookie police officers now must spend their first seven years on the force living in the city. The constant presence of police officers in some neighborhoods should send a strong signal that police are there to help. It should also make longtime residents feel a lot safer. Those officers will also provide role models for young people.
The Police Department should also steal from other playbooks. Richmond, Va., as the article stated, has about the same number of residents and managed to clear 82 percent of its homicides over five years.
Richmond police attribute their success rate to various factors, including a team devoted exclusively to homicides, the use of temporary command posts at homicide scenes and using social workers and clergy to help in canvassing an area for witnesses.
Buffalo homicide detectives have a wider focus, investigating all nonfatal shootings, fatal drug overdoses, suicides, infant deaths, fatal industrial accidents, fire deaths, drownings and unattended deaths. This meant that last year they responded to 539 cases, not just the 44 homicides.
Richmond police also encourage cooperation by making frequent walks through various neighborhoods.
Richmond, while not without issues – earlier this month, there were nine deadly shootings in eight days – has a better than good track record clearing homicide cases. Buffalo can borrow best practices, while improving upon its own.