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Mission for new BPD squad: Investigating 'failed homicides'

It might seem Detective Sgt. Cedric Holloway and his six detectives have an advantage when they investigate another Buffalo shooting. No one died in the cases they pursue.

"Oddly enough, it should be easier," Holloway said.

But a huge whiteboard shows just how tough an undertaking the new unit faces. On a wall in the squad room, it lists the victims, times and locations of 33 city shootings since the end of October. Many of the cases are connected – retaliations for retaliations that can be traced back for years – but only one is solved.

The detectives try to connect the dots among the cases, and they try to prod reluctant victims and witnesses for help amid the sheer volume of cases that come their way.

After a wave of violence last summer and some outside advice, the Buffalo Police Department formed the new squad, the Gun Violence Unit, to focus exclusively on nonfatal shootings. The squad started forming in mid-October. Holloway heads the unit, which includes six detectives: Natasha Anderson, Joseph Bonner, Marlin Hall, Melanie Janusz, Michael Strobele and Adam Wigdorski.

Last year, 191 people survived being shot, while 45 others were killed in shootings, Buffalo police said.

Wednesday morning, after a lull during the bitter cold, the squad responded to two fresh cases. Overnight, a man was driven to Erie County Medical Center with a graze wound to his head. Hours later, a second shooting victim was at the hospital.

"It's Tuesday and Wednesday. I don't know what happening," Bonner said as he and Anderson drove from the suspected scene of the first shooting on Newburgh Avenue to the emergency department at ECMC.

"It happens so fast," Anderson said.

With the new unit, the department changed how it investigates the two types of cases. Homicide detectives will investigate only homicides and life-threatening shootings. They're no longer responsible for handling all shootings, fatal or not. That dramatically reduces their caseload.

Holloway's unit investigates all the nonfatal shootings.

The change came about after a series of terrible crimes last summer. A toddler and his grandmother were fatally shot on the porch of their Fruit Belt home. In another shooting, a young mother died in a car in front of her three children.

In mid-August, Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia and Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards went to Pittsburgh to learn how that city's police department managed to reduce gun violence last year while clearing more homicides. Police there pointed to the re-launching of their Group Violence Intervention Strategy by focusing on the small group of individuals who are responsible for the vast majority of the violence, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Also, a team of law enforcement experts, including retired Los Angeles Police Department Homicide Detective John Skaggs, visited Buffalo through a federal program. The experts looked at Buffalo's homicide squad and met with prosecutors in the Erie County District Attorney's Office.

"At the end of the day, their No. 1 recommendation by far was the fact that the Homicide Unit should only be investigating homicides," District Attorney John Flynn said.

Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood agreed.

Before, any time there was a shooting, homicide detectives would have to interrupt their work on homicide investigations to check out the new nonfatal shooting, Lockwood said.

"So we decided we needed to put a unit together to investigate nonfatal shootings," Lockwood said.

It's no easy task.

The challenges

Nonfatal shootings are particularly difficult to solve. In cases involving gangs or retaliatory shootings, victims are often reluctant to identify the person who shot them.

"Historically, it's known that nonfatal shootings have a low clearance rate," said Richards, who oversees detective units.

In nonfatal shootings, the victims are still alive, but that doesn't make it any easier to find who shot them.

Often, victims have no interest in speaking to the police.

"They're afraid," Bonner said. "They don't want to be snitches."

"They say: 'Just happy to be alive,' " Hall said.

The same goes for witnesses.

Sometimes, there's someone who's willing to offer some information, and it's up to the detectives to try to find them.

"Everybody knows what's happening," Holloway said. "The streets talk."

When there's a shooting, the first on the scene is almost always a patrol officer who will tend to the victim, try to get information about the shooter, find witnesses and secure evidence – especially surveillance camera video – and the scene itself. Then detectives are called in, and they'll try to identify potential witnesses among the crowd gathered outside the yellow crime scene tape.

'We decided we needed to put a unit together to investigate nonfatal shootings," Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood said. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News file photo)

"They don't want to be seen talking to the police," Holloway said.

But often it's the following day that detectives have a better shot at finding someone willing to talk, Bonner said.

The detectives canvass the neighborhood, going door-to-door. If no one's around, they leave a business card – which sometimes yields a call back.

Once in a while, a neighbor who has lived in the area for a long time – and is sick and tired of crime – invites the police in to offer some information, Holloway said.

But they're tough to find.

That's where community organizations like the Peacemakers, SNUG and the Stop the Violence Coalition come in. Made up of non-law enforcement people from the neighborhoods, they act as a liaison between the police and the communities.

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The groups also try to convince victims of shootings as well as their friends and associates to resist retaliating.

The Gun Violence Unit detectives also rely on gathering clues from guns and shell casings found during the course of investigations.

The unit works closely with the Buffalo office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which maintains a database of crime guns. The unit also works with Erie County Central Police Services, which tests guns recovered by law enforcement.

"The guns are often intertwined with other cases," said Richards, the chief of detectives. "Sometimes, the same gun is involved in three or four cases."

'Male down'

At 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, the police got a call from ECMC. A man with a graze wound to his head just showed up at the emergency room. A friend drove him.

Detectives Anderson and Bonner were confident the shooting took place at Newburgh, but they were getting at least three stories about what happened and where.

It's exactly the kind of obstacle they face in figuring out who pulled the trigger.

They had a few clues. The car the friend drove to the hospital had its rear window shot out.

"That was towed," Bonner said. After obtaining permission, it'll be searched for bullet casings and fragments.

Anderson said they found another car parked on Newburgh with bullet holes in it.

Late Wednesday morning, the detectives were back on Newburgh canvassing the scene, hoping to find witnesses and surveillance camera video, when they got a call of another shooting.

"We just have a male down," Anderson said as she and Bonner headed to ECMC to talk to the latest victim.

"The first cop on the scene said the guy was shot," Bonner said.

That's all they knew as they pulled into the ambulance bay.

'Failed homicides'

National crime reduction experts support what Buffalo is trying to do.

"Buffalo is very wise to focus attention on nonfatal shootings as a precursor to homicides," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization.

Last year, the group released a plan to reduce gun violence that called for police to "vigorously investigate nonfatal shootings and gun possession cases."

Nonfatal shootings are "failed homicides," Wexler said. "The only difference between a homicide and a nonfatal shooting? It could be marksmanship. It could be proximity to the hospital."

Police departments have traditionally focused more on homicides, Wexler said.

"It's only in the last few years that there has been a recognition that focusing on nonfatal shootings could impact future homicides," Wexler said.

By investigating the nonfatals, police can try to prevent retaliation by identifying people the victims associate with "and give them a warning," Wexler said.

The detective can speak to them directly and tell them, "Look, I know you're upset with your fellow associate being shot. But let us handle it," Wexler said.

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