Council’s slow motion response to murder crisis

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

Steve Brown and I reported five weeks ago that Buffalo has a serious murder problem. Our city’s homicide rate is among the highest in the nation — and the solve rate is among the worst. Over the past five years, police have cleared only 39 percent of homicides, and that rate has been steadily dropping, to just 23 percent last year.

Gang violence and a resulting lack of cooperation from witnesses, and the community at large, partly explain the low clearance rate. But shortcomings in the city’s homicide squad also come into play.

The problems are pronounced enough that Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita took the unusual step of going on the record with his concerns. The problems, he said, include incomplete detective work, an insufficient command structure, and personnel policies that enable seniority to trump ability in staffing assignments.

The byproduct of this mess is a lot of killers walking the streets — 153 of 250 murders committed from 2010 to 2014 remain unsolved. Moreover, residents in three-quarters of the East Side must deal with the fear that comes with the gang presence in their neighborhood. Steve Brown reported Tuesday that authorities have identified 30 gangs with 350 members operating in the city.

City Hall’s response to this sorry state of affairs has been tepid.

Mayor Byron Brown has had little to say, leaving it up to his spokesman, Mike DeGeorge, to engage in a non-stop whining campaign about our coverage. He and the mayor should put as much energy into solving the problem.

We haven’t heard much from the Common Council, either. I thought that might change Tuesday when its Police Oversight Committee met. I was wrong.

The committee didn’t even have the issue on its agenda. The committee met for about two-and-a-half hours, but only spent about 10 minutes discussing the problem. Members lobbed a handful of softball questions at Police Commissioner Dan Derenda and spent the balance of the time defending themselves against criticism that the Council isn’t taking the issue seriously.

In order words, City Hall has circled the wagons.

People may be dying in the streets, and residents may be shaking with fear in their homes, but the Council members are more concerned with fending off criticism — and keeping the peace with the Brown administration.

Their actions remind me of the words uttered by Governor William J. Le Petomane in Blazing Saddles: “We have to protect our phony baloney jobs here, gentlemen!”

Council President Darius Pridgen and Niagara Council Member David Rivera, chairman of the Police Oversight Committee, insisted that the Council is serious about dealing with the poor clearance rate. (My complete interview with Pridgen can be found here, with Rivera, here.)

Actions speak louder than words, however, and the Council’s failure to put the issue on the committee’s agenda today, and its paucity of questions for Derenda, are telling.

I’ll give Pridgen the benefit of the doubt, as he rightfully points out that he’s been on the front lines of dealing with violent crime for years in his role as pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church.

But it’s discouraging to hear him and his colleagues react instantly to criticism of the Council while taking their time to address the problem. Gentlemen, there is a more important issue at stake than your institution’s reputation.

Then again, the Council’s case of the “slows” is par for the course. I reported 10 months ago that the Council usually comes up small in dealing with important issues.

As Paul Wolf, the Council’s former chief of staff, told me: “They’re supposed to be legislators, they’re supposed to be establishing policy, and they really don’t.”

As I said in my report in May:

What we need is a Council with initiative and independence. Right now, we have neither.

The Council has tackled issues here and there. The licensing of food trucks and the co-mingling of under-age drinkers with those of legal age on Chippewa Street are two examples.

But they are not to be mistaken for the larger issues confronting the city. Crime. Poverty. Education. And the Council is a no-show on these and other issues that matter the most. So is Mayor Byron Brown, and that’s the problem.

No one in elected leadership is taking on the tough issues.

To his credit, Pridgen, after a prickly interview with me, returned to the Council floor and told Derenda that he wanted to see a plan to improving the homicide clearance rate the next time the committee meets. Derenda said he’s developed such a plan and will fill members in next time the committee meets.

Of course, when Steve Brown approached the commissioner after the meeting to ask him about the plan, DeGeorge stepped in and essentially ordered Derenda not to talk. Which raises the question, “Who is working for who?”

Chief Derenda, you might be the city’s chief law enforcement officer, but you’re taking orders from a guy whose claim to fame is being a sports reporter on cable TV. I think I remember him from Empire Sports. Or was it Wayne’s World?

I suppose it would be good to hear what Derenda has in mind. But the Council also ought to be seeking independent assessments, starting with Sedita. The Council should extend him an invitation to address the Police Oversight Committee.

The department’s problems run deeper than just the homicide squad, however. That’s been evident for some time, and was underscored by testimony on other topics delivered to the Police Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

Council members heard from public interest lawyers regarding what they said is the stop-and-frisk harassment of black males at public housing projects. They also heard from Burmese immigrants who are unhappy about that they said is the department’s lackadaisical handling of crime in their neighborhoods. One speaker told of seven people who were robbed at gunpoint: all seven victims could identify their assailant, but police never bothered taking statements.

If the Council really wants to get to the bottom of matters, it should commission a comprehensive assessment of Police Department operations. The city did such an evaluation for the Fire Department when Tony Masiello was mayor; no such assessment has been done for the police department for decades — if ever.

There are any number of organizations that provide such services, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum and the Center for Public Safety Management.

Brown and Derenda would likely balk at such an independent assessment. But one is long overdue. The question is whether the Council or other concerned parties in the community will press for one.

The city’s political, corporate and civic power structure has been tolerant of violent crime and the police department’s inadequacies because the consequences have been quarantined to the inner-city.

I mean, do you think the mayor or Council would be taking their sweet time addressing the problem if North or South Buffalo were ground zero for gangs and the murder and mayhem that they wreak?

Would anyone tolerate these conditions in Amherst or Lancaster or Orchard Park?

Of course not.

But somehow, it’s acceptable on the East Side and Lower West Side. Those communities are in crisis and the Council’s inaction Tuesday underscores City Hall’s indifference.