Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood has shown he is not a prisoner of past practices, not stuck to procedures because “that’s what we’ve always done.”
The Buffalo Police Department, under Lockwood, demonstrates a willingness to embrace creative approaches, such as active outreach to build ties with the public through community policing.
One of the newest innovations to show positive results is the Gun Violence Unit, which focuses its attention on nonfatal shootings. As outlined in a Buffalo News story this week, the squad is able to prevent some future fatal shootings by concentrating on ones that don’t result in death.
Gun attacks, particularly those involving gang members, often provoke retaliatory action. The Gun Violence Unit tries to break the chain.
After the summer of 2018, when deadly gun violence flared in some high-profile killings in Buffalo, the police department looked for new tactics. The department wisely dispatched Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia and Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards to Pittsburgh, where they studied the city police force’s Group Violence Intervention Strategy. Shooting deaths have declined in Pittsburgh each year since 2014, thanks in part to strategies such as holding “call-in” meetings with known gang members, using community groups to communicate with would-be criminals and creating trauma response units that travel to crime scenes and offer mental health support to survivors and neighbors of shooting victims.
Buffalo’s Gun Violence Unit employs some similar tactics. After a nonfatal shooting, detectives canvas the neighborhood, study ballistics from the crime scene and make use of intermediary groups such as the Peacemakers, SNUG and the Stop the Violence Coalition.
The results are promising. The unit is credited with two recent arrests over four days for shooting-related crimes. Through the end of August, a total of 119 people were shot in Buffalo, a 29% drop from the same period in 2018.
Breaking off the unit from the homicide squad is a major reason for its success. Homicide detectives are very skilled but the nature of their job is to focus on fatalities. Nonfatal shootings, by definition, qualify as less urgent.
Gun Violence Unit detectives face special challenges. One is getting witnesses to talk. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank, told The News he refers to nonfatal shootings as “failed homicides.” A gunman who fails on the first try will often make another attempt to finish the job. Knowing that, individuals who witness a gang-related incident or suspect that retaliation is involved are often reticent about telling police what they know.
That makes it all the more important for squad members to keep developing ties to people in the community, gaining their trust and confidence.
“Everybody knows what’s happening,” Detective Sgt. Cedric Holloway, a Gun Violence Unit leader, told The News last year. “The streets talk.”
With the support of Mayor Byron Brown, Lockwood’s emphasis on community policing is paying off. The BPD’s Neighborhood Engagement Team helps the men and women in uniform gain the trust of community members. Crime will always be an unavoidable part of city life. It’s good to know police are trying innovative ways to keep us safe.