Getting away with murder in Buffalo

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

A lot of people are dying in the streets of Buffalo.

The body count last year was 62. To put that number in perspective, consider that only five murders were committed in the balance of Erie County last year.

Buffalo’s murder rate is high, not just in comparison with the suburbs, but with comparably sized cities with a population between 250,000 and 500,000. Buffalo recorded an average of 18.7 murders per 100,000 residents vs. 11.3 for all mid-sized cities for the five years ending in 2013.

That’s the bad news.

And it gets worse.

Most killers get away with murder in Buffalo. Police solved only 39 percent of homicides committed from 2010 through the end of last year, an Investigative Post analysis found. Put another way: 153 killers have escaped justice the past five years.

The odds of getting away with murder are improving. The clearance rate has steadily dropped the past four years, from 56 percent for murders committed in 2011, to 42 percent in 2012, to 34 percent in 2013, to just 23 percent last year.

It’s worth nothing that the clearance rate for murders committed in 2013, and especially 2014, might increase as police continue to investigate cases. The figures are a snapshot of where things stand now.

Regardless, the overall 39 percent clearance rate for the past five years is widely regarded as unacceptable.

“It’s a very dismal record,” said Pastor James Giles, coordinator of Buffalo Peacemakers, one of about eight anti-violence organizations operating on the East Side.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III agrees.

“Obviously, the solve rate is low. It’s unacceptably low,” Sedita said. “I think anyone in law enforcement would consider it unacceptably low.”

What’s the problem?

Violent crime has long been associated with urban ills rooted in poverty, of which Buffalo has plenty. Our city ranks as one of the nation’s poorest municipalities and the rate is even worse among children. Add to it high suspension and drop-out rates among school students.

The problem with the clearance rate is more complicated. Police and prosecutors agree that a lack of cooperation from the community is the biggest problem, and anti-violence activists acknowledge there’s something to that claim.

I teamed with Steve Brown of WGRZ on a pair of stories that broadcast Thursday and we found that shortcomings in the Buffalo Police Department also play a significant role. No less an authority than Sedita noted deficiencies in the department’s homicide squad.

“The numbers suggest there’s room for improvement,” Sedita said.

“I think there’s been a diminution since Joe Riga ran the squad,” he said of the former homicide chief who stepped down in 2001.

Some elements of the police force, meanwhile, are grumbling about Sedita, saying he could be a more aggressive prosecutor. The district attorney hotly disputes the claim.

Gangs a major factor

Gangs are responsible for about half of the city’s murders over the past five years, accounting for 115 of 250 homicides, according to police estimates. Police have cleared only 23 percent of gang related killings, records show.

“A lot of it is gang retribution,” Sedita said. “A number of people who’ve become homicide victims, a week before they were prime homicide suspects.”

Gangs have long been a presence on the city’s East Side, but their motives have changed and their impact on the lives of residents has become more pronounced, authorities and activists said.

“The gang violence we used to see used to be a means to an end, and that was monopolizing the drug trade,” Sedita said. “You still see some of that, but you’re seeing a lot more now of a sub-culture that celebrates violence as an ends to itself – and that is frightening.”

Most gangs are mostly hyper-local, based in neighborhoods.

“This isn’t the west coast Bloods and Crips, where it goes outside the neighborhoods,” said Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who is familiar with East Side street life as pastor of one of the East Side’s largest churches.

Arlee Daniels, program coordinator for the Stop the Violence Coalition, said there are two types of gangs.

“On one level, you have older, more experienced young men, some of whom come from being incarcerated. They are a lot more in control, a lot more financed, a lot more organized,” Daniels said.

“And then you have another core group, who are just mainly young men who are running around with none of that, but aspiring to be some of that.”

Giles said gangs have a presence in 80 percent of East Side neighborhoods.

The nature of the violence has left the “community petrified,” Giles said. The fear level, he added, “is high, it’s shameful.”

While some of the violence is connected to the drug trade, activists and authorities said much of it can be attributed to machismo that’s often fueled by social media.

“One of the things that has really ramped up this type of killing is social media,” Giles said. “A lot of threats are made on social media. Shortly after these threats are made, somebody dies.”

Police, community disconnect

Sedita and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said an unwillingness to cooperate by witnesses, and sometimes victims, is the primary reason for the low murder clearance rate.

“We do get cooperation in certain types of cases, we get excellent cooperation,” Derenda said. “But, when you’re dealing with gangs and drugs, we don’t see that cooperation. We just don’t.”

Said Sedita: “Several factors explain this phenomenon, including genuine fear of retaliation, apathy, and the so-called anti-snitch culture. In some communities, the worst thing you can do is cooperate with the police – even if the murder victim is your own child.”

Sedita said the lack of cooperation is more commonplace here than elsewhere.

“I’ve talked with my brethren across the state,” he said. “It’s worse than Queens. It’s worse than the Bronx. It is a horrible problem here.”

Giles said “there’s some credence” to complaints about the lack of cooperation. And Pridgen said the community as a whole is less forthcoming in the wake of murders than it used to be.

“We used to get information of lot of time. Now it’s trickles of information.”

But Pridgen and Giles said there’s more to the lack of cooperation than what the authorities have to say.

“There’s some apathy, there’s some fear, there’s a lack of having a really good relationship with law enforcement,” Giles said.

“There’s just no respect or regard or even trust or confidence in law enforcement.”

Added Pridgen: “It’s hard to trust what you don’t know. I don’t think we’ve done enough to build good relationships.”

Sedita said that witness intimidation is also a serious problem.

“The intimidation will start as soon as you turn over the discovery material,” he said.

As a result, Sedita said his office has relocated 10 witnesses and 30 family members the past three years. He said that’s more than any district attorney in the state.

Police shortcomings

The operational shortcomings of the police department’s homicide squad also contribute to the low clearance rate. To me, it’s very telling that the district attorney, the county’s chief law enforcement officer, took the unusual step of noting problems during his interview with me.

Mind you, he wasn’t thrilled about going on the record, but he knows of what he speaks, as he headed the DA’s homicide bureau from 2001-08 before his election as district attorney. His comments were in line with those made on background by other veteran observers of the police homicide squad.

Key criticisms include:

A bare bones command structure: The homicide squad has not had a chief or assistant chief since 2001. Instead, a captain is in charge, with no second in command. The arrangement, critics say, doesn’t provide sufficient supervision.

“There are some excellent detectives in the homicide squad,” Sedita said, “but they don’t have the structure that they need.”

Seniority-based work assignments: All assignments in the police department have been based on seniority since 1986. That means length of time on the job, as opposed to qualifications, dictates who works the homicide squad.

“The people that are in charge of running certain elite squads do not have the luxury of selecting at their discretion who to place on their squads,” Sedita said. “There’s got to be some changes in the rules for hiring, firing, promoting and supervising.”

Thoroughness of work: The DA’s office generally has less to work with in prosecuting murder cases than they did say, a decade ago.

“The files were much thicker, much more documented back then,” Sedita said. “There was much more of a focus on documentation … crossing every ’T’ and dotting every ‘I’.”

Expanded responsibilities: The homicide squad investigates more than just murders. Since July 2014 it has also been charged with investigating all shootings. Kevin Kennedy, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said that’s greatly expanded homicide’s caseload.

“We had 62 homicides. We had 182 shootings,” he said of last year’s workload.

Sedita said the rationale behind the expansion of the homicide squad’s duties is an “interesting theory … a novel theory” whose effectiveness has yet to be determined.

He was less measured in discussing the since-abandoned merger of the homicide and robbery squads into a major crimes unit during the latter years of Mayor Anthony Masiello’s tenure.

“That was not a good idea, that was a disastrous idea, and the squad has not been the same since,” Sedita said.

Derenda did not have much to say in response to Sedita’s critique of the homicide squad.

“He has not expressed those concerns to me. I will speak with him in the near future,” the commissioner said.

Sedita said playing it safe

The district attorney’s comments came in the face of a whisper campaign emanating out of City Hall and police headquarters that is trying to partly blame Sedita for the low clearance rate.

Kennedy, the PBA president, gave voice to those criticisms in an interview. Kennedy said that some homicide detectives who he represents told him “the current district attorney is unwilling to prosecute a lot of the cases that they feel are prosecutable.

“It’s my understanding that there’s at least a dozen homicide cases that they feel that in 2014 could have and should have been prosecuted,” Kennedy said.

“When these cases are not prosecuted, you’re emboldening the most vicious criminals on our streets to perpetuate more crimes of that stature.”

Derenda did not criticize Sedita in those blunt of terms. But he suggested police and prosecutors don’t always agree on when to press murder charges.

“The district attorney has a standard. We try hard to reach his standard,” Derenda said. “At times we don’t agree with him.”

Sedita bristled at Kennedy’s claims.

“At best, he is being grossly inaccurate and doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or at worst, he is intentionally lying to you to deflect blame.”

Sedita said that after he first learned of Kennedy’s comments, he had James Bargnesi, the chief of his homicide bureau, ask the police homicide squad if there are any cases detectives wanted the DA’s office to prosecute.

“The answer was ‘no,’ ” Sedita said.

The only case suggested for possible prosecution involved a murder in 2011, Sedita said, and that homicide is getting a second look.

The district attorney insisted that “we aggressively prosecute” murder cases when the evidence dictates. But Sedita said police have to present sufficient evidence in order for him to prosecute.

“You’re talking about putting people in cages for the rest of their lives, and before I do that there has to be a decent amount of evidence to do so.”