For 100 days this summer, a dozen Buffalo police officers took part in an experiment.
In East Side neighborhoods, they organized soccer clinics on vacant lots. They held bike-safety rodeos on residential streets. They went door to door, introducing themselves to residents and business owners and tried to solve neighborhood issues. They helped out at community events and attended block club meetings.
So began the Police Department's Neighborhood Engagement Team.
The aim: Find ways for Buffalo police officers to build trust in a part of the city where families suffer chronic poverty and fear crime but whose trust in law enforcement is tenuous at best.
Police officials liked what they saw during the pilot project, so they have decided the Neighborhood Engagement Team – made up of two lieutenants and 10 officers – will become a permanent part of the Buffalo Police Department.
“I look at NET as being the model of the new Buffalo Police Department,” said Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood.
This past summer, a grassy, vacant lot at Genesee Street and Goodyear Avenue became the de facto headquarters for the neighborhood team. The officers held soccer clinics on Wednesday evenings with neighborhood children. They also hosted a job fair on the lot.
Down the street, the Rev. Elzie Fischer of the Good Shepherd Temple, and his wife, Janice, watched a more positive tone emerge in the neighborhood.
“What I did observe is a different attitude," Elzie Fisher said after a recent prayer service. "When the police would ride by, [residents] didn’t perceive them as the enemy. Instead of calling them a dirty [expletive] they showed respect.”
The children in the neighborhood seemed to warm up to the police, he said. They waved at the officers and jumped into their patrol cars.
“The trust started developing,” he said.
Solving problems, not just crimes
A lot of what NET officers did this summer entailed interacting with kids and showing up at community events, said Capt. Steve Nichols, who oversees the 12-member unit and other community police officers in the department’s five districts.
The work wasn’t just about kicking soccer balls.
The NET officers had a mission: identify problems residents wanted fixed and then try to fix them without alienating the community.
When appointed earlier this year as the new police commissioner, Lockwood said he wanted all of his police officers to be community police officers. He disbanded the Strike Force unit, comprised of officers sent into high-crime areas. Social justice groups said the Strike Force's traffic checkpoints and other tactics were too aggressive and unfairly targeted poor communities of color.
A study by Cornell University and the University at Buffalo Law School found that Buffalo police issued 25,000 more traffic tickets in the two years after daily Strike Force checkpoints began in 2013 than in the previous two years. The number grew to 65,862 from 40,761 – a 62 percent increase.
A lawsuit was filed in federal court and the state Attorney General's office opened an investigation.
Usually, patrol officers are dispatched first to the most urgent 911 calls – shootings, robberies and violent domestic disputes. That means when someone calls about someone dealing drugs openly in front of their home or store, it could take hours before a police officer shows up, said Lt. Craig Macy, a member of the NET unit.
NET officers don’t answer those urgent 911 calls, he said. Instead, they respond to complaints to the city’s 311 line and also to what they hear from neighbors and store owners they meet.
“There’s no better way to solve problems than to hear what the problems are from the people that you’re working in their neighborhoods with,” Macy said.
NET officers aren’t expected to make many arrests or write a lot of tickets.
But they do make some.
What NET officers said they heard were pleas to do something about blatant, persistent drug dealing in front of their homes and businesses.
The officers didn’t want to arrest people with small amounts of marijuana. Any hard-core dealer would be back on the street the next day. Police officers, like the neighbors, weren’t interested in bothering with occasional pot smokers.
They wanted to break up the larger-scale operations that were upsetting neighbors and business owners.
“This is more than busting guys with weed,” Macy said.
The NET officers teamed up with a State Police unit called the Community Narcotics Enforcement Team and also consulted the Erie County District Attorney’s office.
Here’s how one undercover State Police officer described an operation on one residential street: A couple dozen young men would set up shop on the sidewalk or street as cars slowly passed by, barely even stopping. Drivers would hand over cash to one person and then another would bring over a baggie of pot or other drugs. Another person would run to another location to replenish the supply. Thirty to 40 cars would come through.
And it was not an isolated occurrence.
Over the summer, NET made nine arrests related to drug activity. All ended up with minor charges.
Police and prosecutors aren’t necessarily looking to throw the defendants in nonviolent drug cases into jail, said District Attorney John J. Flynn.
Flynn wants his office open to suggesting more creative sentencing for those arrested on minor, nonviolent drug charges, like asking a judge to offer ACDs – adjournment in contemplation of dismissal – if the defendant agrees to return to school or enroll in job training.
“They obviously have some skills,” Flynn said. “How about using those skills to get a real job or get into a business?”
Is it working?
Measuring the success of a community policing program can be tricky because police don't rely on arrests and tickets to curb crime.
The police commissioner called the team's presence over the summer a work in progress.
Lockwood pointed to early figures showing a decrease in crime in the neighborhood around Genesee and Goodyear. Between March 13 and June 30, there were 21 reports of Part One crimes – those offenses required to be reported to the FBI. The number fell to 13 between July 1 and Oct. 18.
There are other ways to look at whether community policing is having an effect, “although some initiatives may take time before they bear fruit,” said Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good.
They include looking at the number of officers involved in community policing and how many hours they spend engaging with the community, the number of interactions officers have with residents outside of crime response, and how much and what kinds of training officers get.
In the long run, success can be measured, Magavern said, through a decrease in reported incidents of crime, not just arrests. Other indicators include the amount of cooperation from the community in solving crimes, job satisfaction among police officers, reduced racial disparities in arrests, more diversity in the police force, and fewer uses of force by officers as well as fewer incidents of police misconduct.
Flynn said he sees signs the effort works.
The NET team played a role in helping Buffalo police make an arrest in last summer’s quadruple shooting on Grape Street that left a toddler and his grandma dead, he said.
“We’re seeing more and more people saying enough is enough," Flynn said. "They’re willing to come forward now and they’re willing to take an active role in cleaning up their neighborhood. That doesn’t happen overnight. That happens with work by the Buffalo Police Department in building that trust and building those relationships.”
The unit is getting ready to test giving warnings instead of tickets for vehicle and traffic violations where there are many 311 complaints about dangerous drivers. If the officers find they are giving a lot of warnings in an area, they’ll set up traffic details to issue tickets.
They’re also working with a State Police narcotics unit to dismantle drug-selling operations on residential streets.
The unit will continue interacting with children by teaming with athletic programs, including the Buffalo Police Athletic League, and taking kids to sporting events.
Assistant District Attorney G. Michael Drmacich of the City Court Bureau will act as a community prosecutor handling NET-related cases.
Quiet and calm
The constant presence of police officers seemed to bring some calm to his neighborhood, Elzie Fisher said.
“The little turmoil between neighbors, that diminished,” he said.
The more blatant drug dealing also declined.
His wife, Janice Fisher, also a pastor, thinks that the NET program seemed to work in part because the same police officers came back week after week, not only playing soccer with the kids but taking them to baseball games and other activities.
“They were definitely consistent,” she said. “They were there when they said they would be there.”
Icy Hodge, 79, who lives on Bissell Avenue, said she spent many hours on her porch this past summer and saw a lot of police in her neighborhood. She said she was happy to see them there.
“Quieter,” she said of the neighborhood.
Mateen Salahuddin and Kenny Deese fixed brickwork on the side of a storefront on Genesee, just west of Bissell. It’s going to open as a take-out fish fry place in a few months, they said.
It wasn’t long ago that people called the neighborhood a “killing zone,” Salahuddin said.
The violence seems to be receding, he said.
Salahuddin doesn’t live in the neighborhood but said he noticed the officers playing soccer and other sports with the neighborhood youth.
“It was helpful to the community,” he said.