When the city of Buffalo, New York, took stock of Operation Impact, a 2004 state grant targeting violent crime in 17 counties, the results were promising: Between 2005 and 2013 the city’s crime rate fell by more than 23 percent, while its number of violent crime cases dropped by 17 percent.
But there was a problem: Despite the decrease in violent crime overall, gun violence persisted. Across the state, the rate of violent crimes committed with a firearm still hovered around 25 percent. In Buffalo, firearms still account for around 30 percent of violent crimes. The city’s murder rate also fluctuated over those nine years, peaking at 74 murders in 2006 then dropping to 36 in 2011.
Last year, backed by a new state program, the Buffalo Police Department doubled down on its efforts to quell gun violence. Its initiatives are funded by Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE), a 2014 grant initiative that awarded law enforcement $13.2 million (in the same 17 counties involved with Operation Impact) to specifically tackle gun-related crimes. The money is allowing Buffalo to experiment with a host of strategies — some controversial.
A ROUGH START
In the first year of GIVE, the Buffalo police developed a program in which officers cross-referenced pistol permit holders with death records. The goal was to inform families who might not want to keep their relatives’ legal weapons how they could dispose of the guns.
“We’re sending people out to collect the guns whenever possible so that they don’t end up in the wrong hands,” Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda told WGRZ in November 2014.
The program drew heat from gun-rights advocates, who called the practice “ghoulish.” But Buffalo police Lt. Jeffrey Rinaldo insists the initiative was never an attempt to take away anyone’s family heirloom.
“A lot of illegal guns come out of a burglary,” he tells The Trace. “Instead of waiting once a year, the thought was to give people an avenue to dispose of it. I don’t want a gun sitting around for 11 months” — until the department’s next gun buy-back event — “versus a week.”
The department is putting a hold on the program this year. Instead, police are using money from GIVE for rewards for information about illegal guns. The rewards will be advertised on billboards across the city: up to $250 for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of persons possessing an illegal gun, and $2,500 for information leading to murderers.
The program was developed in consultation with the New York Police Department, whose similar ad campaign, Operation Gun Stop, has lead to more than 5,600 arrests since 2001.
While Operation Impact gave funds to law enforcement for technology and police overtime, GIVE mandates that agencies use evidence-based strategies, one of which is known as “focused deterrence.” Developed by David Kennedy, a criminologist and director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, focused deterrence singles out chronic gun-violence offenders and partners law enforcement with community groups and social organizations to communicate directly with offenders.
Michael Green, executive deputy commissioner at New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, worked with Kennedy to implement an earlier focused-deterrence program in the Rochester area. The strategy helped reverse gang peer pressure to retaliate after initial attacks or offenses. Between 2003 and 2004, homicides in the Rochester region fell from 58 to 36.
“(With gangs), if you get disrespected, you have to stand up for yourself,” he says. “When this strategy is done right, the peer pressure is to not shoot somebody.”
TREATING VIOLENCE LIKE HOMICIDE
Under GIVE, Buffalo has united once disjointed homicide investigations. The Buffalo Police Department’s homicide squad now responds to crimes across the city, rather than those in individually assigned districts. Overtime funding from GIVE has also allowed homicide and intelligence officers to respond not only to murders, but also to shootings, says Rinaldo.
Connecting nonlethal shootings to homicide shootings allows the squad to build better cases, Rinaldo says. Identifying repeat violent offenders could also help reduce the homicide rate.
“It’s obvious that people who are shooting people are attempting to kill them,” he says. “Getting these criminals off the streets will reduce violence, especially if they were known shooters from specific gangs.”
GUN VIOLENCE “HOT SPOTS”
In the first year of GIVE, the Erie Crime Analysis Center produced maps identifying gun violence “hot spots.” Buffalo’s E-District was red hot, according to E-District Chief Carmen Menza. The district was a nest of gang and drug activity. In August 2014, fighting between and within gangs there escalated into a bloody battle that claimed several residents’ lives in the crossfire. In one week, seven teens were shot, including two fatally.
The Buffalo police had already been chipping away at crime in E-District earlier that year, according to Menza. His team began hitting the area in April, making smaller arrests and putting pressure on local landlords to push out delinquent tenants. But Buffalo cops came at the neighborhood with gusto after GIVE grants kicked in that July to fund tailored patrols.
Although tensions between gangs did heat up during the summer, officers were able to pick up guns, Menza says. Law enforcement drove criminal activity out of residences, leaving a handful of vacant homes on the block. Police also arrested a suspect in one of the August shootings, as well as several other gang members.
“It’s a small victory,” Menza says. “But it’s a big victory for me when I see people riding their bikes and barbecuing where before that I saw people hustling.”
“Through GIVE we took the street back,” Rinaldo added.
[Photo: Flickr user Scott Kinmartin]