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Buffalo mayor's pitch for extra police spending: a quicker response to shootings and solving them

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Mayor Byron Brown's proposed increase in spending for police comes a year after the police budget was trimmed by $743,139.

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A year ago, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown proposed spending less on police. 

But this year, Brown proposes to increase funding for police by more than $5 million.

Two years after the call to "defund the police" became a rallying cry at protests across the nation during the George Floyd protests starting in May 2020, Buffalo hasn't slashed police funding to redirect the savings to social programs and community services like other cities including Baltimore, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Now, Buffalo, like many other cities across the country, is grappling with a spate of gun violence that skyrocketed during the pandemic.

The extra spending would enable police to respond more quickly when shootings occur, investigate cases more thoroughly, resolve them faster and deter violence in our neighborhoods, Brown said.

The proposed increase comes a year after the police budget was trimmed by $743,139 – mainly by reductions in supplies and lower salaries of new police officers joining the force to replace higher paid retiring officers. 

“Overall, we are happy with this budget as it relates to public safety," said John Evans, president of the police union, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. “We are very encouraged to see the additional detectives. We would like to see more vehicles but will certainly welcome the 20 budgeted.”

But some community leaders and organizations, while supportive of the city allocating more funds to address crime, say proper oversight is needed.

“When you allocate resources to these departments, you really want to see what the end result is," said Niagara Common Council Majority Leader David Rivera, a retired Buffalo police officer. "You want to look at the stats. Have we made more arrests? Have we seized more weapons? Have we solved more homicides?” 

“It’s nice the city is saying they are allocating these funds,” added Dominique Calhoun, co-chair of the Police Advisory Board, a nonprofit not affiliated with city government. “What are the checks and balances to assure that the use of these funds are being used correctly?”

The Police Advisory Board was formed by members of the Council’s Police Advisory Board, which the Council dissolved because of internal fighting, including the resignation of five board members last February and the board’s unwillingness to comply with the Council confirming new members. The Council’s new advisory board has been revamped and renamed Community Police Advisory Committee.

Brown’s proposed $568 million spending plan for 2022-23 recommends increasing police funding to $90.7 million, up by $5.4 million over this year's police budget.

The mayor's proposal calls for 20 new police vehicles costing $1 million, adding more detectives, expanding the department’s Behavioral Health Team and acquiring technology like ShotSpotters.

Brown’s proposed spending plan must first be approved by the Common Council before going into effect July 1.

Among the main components:

ShotSpotters

The technology to detect where shots are fired in the city costs $364,000.

Pastor Timothy Newkirk of GYC Ministries, who founded Community Action Coalition of Western New York, said the technology would allow police, detectives and special units to “nest in hot zones.”

“So often they have operations for those that are peddling drugs, but they don’t have a lot of programs and operations in place to stop shootings,” he said.

With 15 listening sensors per square mile, ShotSpotters registers the sound of gunfire and determines where it came from – all within a minute before alerting police. The sensors would be put in locations where data show a high number of shots fired, said Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, who asked for enough funding to cover 3 square miles.

As of mid-April, this year's rate of gun violence has slowed, with shootings down 34% compared to the same period last year as of April 13. However, the number of people shot in Buffalo remains higher than average, according to police data.

The technology is used in Oakland, Calif.; Pittsburgh; Greenville, N.C.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Miami among other cities.

“We don’t know what we’re missing, and we are going to find out what we’re missing with this technology,” Gramaglia said.

The program will be up and running by summer, and the public will know where the sensors are located, Gramaglia said.

“That’s part of helping to drive those numbers down is that if someone knows that there’s a strong potential of getting the police there faster, maybe they’ll think twice about firing a shot,” he added.

“Just in the recent past we’ve had a number of shootings, two in my district two days apart," Rivera said. 

Detectives

The city would add 14 detectives to bring the total to 102. 

Seven would come from within the current budgeted detectives and seven others would be new spending, Gramaglia said.

The salary line for detectives in the proposed budget would increase to about $9.3 million, about $1.1 million more than in the current budget.

Newkirk said families of victims can get left in the “crevices” because cases pile up.

“I definitely support any time that we add more detectives to the city,” he said. “It increases awareness of unsolved homicides and unsolved crimes. One of the things that I run into … is not enough detectives on the case.”

Rivera said he believes the city needs to increase the number of detectives to clear unsolved homicides. The clearance rate, he said, is too low.

“We had almost 66 homicides," he said. "We’ve only solved 13 this year. And last year we had almost 65 and we solved 35 homicides, so we really have to add more resources to investigations regarding homicides and perhaps other investigations as well."

Behavioral Health Team

Created in late 2020, the department's Behavioral Health Team pairs specially trained officers with mental health professionals. It has six officers and two lieutenants who work with three clinicians and a program supervisor from Endeavor Health Services, a local nonprofit that provides mental and behavioral health services.

The team regularly operates weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. but has been brought in on some weekends for a four-hour shift for Saturday or Sunday hours, said Buffalo Police Capt. Amber Beyer, who leads the team.

It has responded to more than 1,000 calls with no incident, said Brown, who included funding in his budget proposal to expand the team’s hours of operation, members and resources.

“We’re going to expand the hours to at least about 10 or 11 at night, seven days a week, so we have funding to be able to do that,” Beyer said. “We’re also adding a case manager position, money for training dollars … and equipment, another transport vehicle.”

Expanding the team was one of the “big asks” from residents, advocates and people from the mental health community and Council members, Rivera said.

Calhoun, of the Police Advisory Board, is encouraged the mayor intends to expand the team, but the organization’s members want more details.

“We would like to know how long the hours the BHT are being expanded? What will happen during hours that the BHT is not in operation? Why can’t officers who are not on this BHT be trained and deployed during the hours the BHT is not available?” she said.

The organization earlier this year advocated for the team to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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