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Buffalo police get lesson in solving problems, not just crimes

What if police officers didn't just solve crimes and arrest bad guys and instead tried to address the underlying problems that made the crime possible?

It's an approach called "problem-oriented policing" that about two dozen local police officers, half from Buffalo, learned about this week.

How does it work?

Say there's been a number of complaints from residents of a particular apartment complex about drug dealing. Normally, police officers would be dispatched and maybe make some arrests.

Problem-oriented policing calls on officers to return to the area and figure out why the drug dealing was going on. Was it something about where the building is located? Was the drug dealing happening at a certain time? Was there a pattern to who was coming to buy the drugs?

The officers would then work with the residents to tackle the issue to prevent crimes from happening again.

At Thursday's class at Erie Community College North, Julie Wartell, who is working for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, offered officers strategies on how to approach crimes by working with residents, business owners.

The training fits in with new Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood's plan to turn every Buffalo police officer into a community police officer.

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The Buffalo Police Department has about a dozen specifically designated community officers, several of whom were at the training sessions this week. But in the next few weeks, the department is expected to unveil new plans to encourage community policing this summer.

"We are looking for ways to not just reduce crime but to prevent crime and eliminate it in some cases," said Capt. Steve Nichols, who heads the department's community policing unit.

"You can run in there and make an arrest and yeah, we corrected that one thing but chances are you'll have the same problem," Nichols said. "Through problem oriented policing, we will hopefully root out the problem. It sounds corny but it really does work."

Buffalo Police Capt. Steven Nichols heads the department's community policing unit. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

Chief Alphonso Wright, who is in charge of the Ferry-Fillmore District, also known as C District, was among those taking the training Thursday.

"It's giving me ways to better understand the citizens," said Wright.

Some of the techniques have been tried before, he said, like creating partnerships with community organizations. But they're worth trying again and doing it in different ways.

Lt. Sharese Saleh, who manages a platoon in C District, was interested in hearing about ways to get people who may be resistant to working with police to become partners.

"Sometimes, officers can talk to community leaders who are more apt to listen," Saleh said she learned. They can act as intermediaries to more wary people, she said.

She was intrigued by one suggestion: taking surveys of people police encounter, including victims and offenders of crime.

"I love the idea that you're talking directly to the offender," she said.


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