Getting witnesses to speak out when someone has been murdered, particularly when gang-related, has long been challenging for law enforcement and the district attorney’s office.
The hopeful news is that officials have not given up on their attempts to encourage witnesses to come forward. They seem to be willing to work as hard as it takes to gain the community’s trust.
Given the difficulty in getting witnesses, it is not surprising but still disappointing that the majority of Buffalo’s homicides last year – 33 of 42 – remain unsolved. That has been the case in previous years, although 10 homicides from previous years were solved in 2017.
The gang subculture, as Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards noted, “is against cooperation with the police.”
The Police Department’s homicide clearance did tick up a bit compared with 2016, when the department investigated 44 homicides.
Nineteen of last year’s 42 homicides were classified as gang/drug-related. Of those, only one was solved. In 2016 there were “21 gang- and drug-connected killings,” and only one was solved. The problem is obvious, the solutions elusive. Keep in mind that the city’s clearance rate for last year would be 87 percent were it not for gang- and drug-related killings. That, as News staff reporter Lou Michel’s recent article quoted police officials saying, would be “well above the national clearance rate average of 59 percent.”
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. described the substantial challenge of getting people to come forward in the case of gang and drug homicide cases. He called it the “No. 1 problem.”
Give the Police Department credit for not making excuses. Instead, officials are trying harder by expanding community outreach in new ways that go beyond monthly community meetings. Whether it’s a pickup football game captured on a smartphone and shared through social media, or the cookouts and bicycle giveaways Richards described and the new mentoring program “Bigs in Blue,” it all counts toward the critical goal of building trust in the community.
The District Attorney’s Office has stepped up its efforts, with Flynn assigning a “community liaison attorney” to work with police and community groups, in addition to joining in the bicycle giveaway program and serving turkey dinners in November at housing projects.
None of these efforts will work without broad community involvement.
Groups such as Back to Basics Outreach Ministries, Buffalo Peacemakers, Stop the Violence Coalition and Buffalo FATHERS are willing to speak to authorities for those too afraid to do so themselves. They also are willing to act as mentors and chaperones for young people trying to stay out of trouble, including members of gangs who want to change their ways.
Crime fighting is a team effort. A successful effort will go a long way toward making a safer city.