Statistically speaking, Buffalo is safer today than it was when Mayor Byron Brown took office in 2006. But it doesn’t feel that way to Gayla Ross.
“Everyday somebody’s shooting, or somebody is getting shot, or somebody is dying, or somebody is getting robbed or mugged,” Ross told Investigative Post. “It’s not getting safer.”
Citywide, however, violent crime is down substantially, as it is across the nation.
An Investigative Post analysis shows the number of reported violent crimes in Buffalo has fallen 36 percent since Brown took office. That’s more than double the national drop of 16 percent during that period for crimes including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Nevertheless, Buffalo remains among the most violent mid-sized cities in the U.S. Among 79 cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000, Buffalo’s violent crime rate ranked 12th worst, the analysis found.
According to Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, Buffalo is a less dangerous city than it was in 2001, when he began as a county prosecutor. But the data revealed in our analysis, he said, “speaks for itself.”
“Those numbers are disturbing,” he said.
Violent crime rates in mid-sized cities
|City||Rate per 100,000 residents|
|St. Louis, MO||1,929|
|Kansas City, MO||1,431|
|San Bernardino, CA||1,319|
|New Orleans, LA||1,146|
|Baton Rouge, LA||938|
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
James McCabe, a national policing expert, said the effects of crime — no matter where it occurs — ripple across a city.
“The last thing that Buffalo needs is … pockets of violence,” he said “It’s just not a good thing for the community health.”
According to Investigative Post’s analysis:
- Buffalo police solve 48 percent of violent crimes. The clearance rate (that is, cases resulting in an arrest) among the 79 peer cities is 49 percent.
- Buffalo’s clearance rate for murders, about 26 percent, is the fourth worst.
- Property crime in Buffalo (that’s burglary, larceny and auto-theft) declined 46 percent between 2006 and 2019. The city’s property crime rate was the 36th worst.
A relatively small number of criminals, loosely organized in neighborhood crews, rather than traditional gangs, are responsible for a disproportionate share of violent crime in the city, Flynn told Investigative Post. Poverty, he added, is an underlying cause.
“Poverty, lack of economic development, education, health care, breakdown of the family — they are all part of an unfortunate equation that leads to crime and violence in our cities,” he said.
A look at violence
To assess crime, Investigative Post analyzed two sets of data.
One, the FBI Uniform Crime Report, documents major violent and property crimes reported by municipalities. Investigative Post’s review considered 2006 through 2019, the last year for which complete data is available. Our analysis was assisted by Andy Bailey of Primary Data, whose clients include The Toronto Star.
The second set of data, maintained by the Buffalo Police Department, includes geographic coordinates for violent and property crimes from 2006 to 2019. With the assistance of Russell Weaver, a quantitative geographer and director of research at the Cornell University ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, Investigative Post mapped the city’s data.
While this is the most complete data available, it provides an incomplete picture. Many victims do not report crimes to the police. A survey of crime victims nationally by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a little more than half of them do not go to the police.
Investigative Post also interviewed eight people, including police, prosecutors, consultants, academics and crime victims. We also reviewed research done by the Partnership for the Public Good. Brown, through his spokesman, failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Some perspective in Buffalo’s drop in crime: It’s been happening practically everywhere over the past two decades. Experts cite numerous factors: better policing, growing incarceration, changing economic conditions and the increased role of community-based anti-violence groups.
“Some of those changes represent improvements in the style of policing and the efficiency of policing,” said Patrick Sharkey, a professor of sociology at Princeton University whose research focuses on crime and poverty. “Other improvements represent just a more aggressive, ruthless approach to taking over public space.”
A drop in 911 calls reflects Buffalo’s declining crime rate.
Investigative Post recently analyzed 1.4 million 911 calls to Buffalo police between 2015 and 2019. The analysis showed a 5 percent drop in 911 calls as a whole, and a 21 percent drop in the highest-priority calls, involving violent crimes and property crimes in progress. Meanwhile, traffic stops — ranked lowest in urgency — rose nearly 48 percent. Most of the increases occurred in minority neighborhoods.
Changes in Buffalo’s violent crime
|Crime||‘06 incidents||‘15 incidents||‘19 incidents||Change (06-19)||Change (15-19)|
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Our analysis of crime data shows most violent crime in Buffalo involves robberies and aggravated assaults. The categories accounted for 93 percent of violent crimes in 2019, according to data reported to the FBI.
That’s an average of 6.5 a day.
Put another way, someone is robbed or assaulted an average of once every four hours in Buffalo. And those are just the ones reported.
Robberies declined the most since 2006, down by a little more than half. Aggravated assaults are down nearly one-quarter under Brown, but have decreased at a far slower pace since 2015.
Reported rapes, a particularly underreported crime, are down nearly one-third.
Murders, however, are another matter.
Spike in homicides
While violent crime rates have dropped across the U.S., the homicide rate has risen gradually since 2014, according to McCabe, a retired member of the New York City Police Department who today works as a consultant and professor. Murder doesn’t always follow national crime trends, he said.
That’s true for Buffalo, according to Investigative Post’s analysis.
Three-quarters of murders in Buffalo go unsolved. The failure to make arrests has been a long-standing problem.
Last month, Ross, the grieving mother, was one of eight pleading for tips to solve the murders of their loved ones. It was part of a Crime Stoppers WNY campaign that hung ten billboards in Buffalo displaying victims’ names and faces.
Though Jemes’s case is unsolved, Ross said the identity of her son’s killer isn’t a secret.
“Everybody knows,” she said.
However, there’s only so much the police can do without witnesses willing to talk, Ross said. And witnesses fear retaliation.
The unwillingness to cooperate with police “didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Sharkey, the Princeton sociologist.
“They came because of this long-term pattern where the police are seen, not as a set of actors who have the interests of the community, but rather an outside force.”
According to Flynn, the district attorney, the issues of trust date back two centuries.
“That lack of trust has been there since the days of slavery. The genesis of law enforcement in the South was to recapture runaway slaves,” he said. “So when you start out with that as the genesis of the creation of law enforcement, of course you’re going to have a lack of trust.”
In Buffalo, trust issues have been exacerbated in recent years after police established a Strike Force Unit, ostensibly to target street crime. Defense attorneys described the unit as “vigilantes” with a “cowboy mentality” and the mayor disbanded Strike Force in 2018.
In addition, the police department’s division of Internal Affairs, charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct, has a reputation for being officer friendly. Moreover, the city’s contract with its police union can make it difficult to discipline bad cops.
Property crimes also dropping
Like violent offenses, property crime rates have decreased steadily across the U.S. over the last several decades, and Buffalo is no different.
According to FBI data, Buffalo’s property crime rate declined by nearly half over the last 15 years. The city ranks in the middle of its peers, 36 worst of 79 total cities.
Changes in major property crimes
|Location||Change (06-19)||Change (15-19)|
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Buffalo is also about average when it comes to solving major property crimes. In other words, few of the incidents result in an arrest. Buffalo’s clearance rate in 2019 was 13.8 percent; the average among peer cities was 13 percent.
By comparison, the clearance rate in Rochester was 11 percent. Buffalo did better than Cleveland (3 percent) but not as well as Pittsburgh (22 percent).
Poverty and crime
Poverty has long been cited as a root cause of crime, along with other social ills. If Buffalo ranks 12th worst among peer cities in terms of violent crime, it’s also doing poorly in other consequential areas, according to Flynn, the district attorney.
“I would guarantee you, if you look at the poverty rates, the lack of health care amongst children, on the educational levels amongst children, the lack of economic opportunity, and you do a statistical analysis of those categories, you’re going to find Buffalo 12 out of 78 in all of them as well.
“And again, until we solve those problems, we’re going to remain 12.”
Buffalo is an especially poor city. Twenty-nine percent of residents live below the poverty line, including 43 percent of children. Buffalo’s poverty rate is the third-highest among major American cities.
The majority of the violence is concentrated in particular areas and social circles, according to Timothy Lauger, a criminologist and professor at Niagara University. That’s the case in Buffalo, too, according to Flynn.
“The data has shown for years, and it continues to show, that there is a very small group of individuals who are committing the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, specifically, shootings and homicides,” Flynn said.
What were once organized gangs involved in drug dealing are “not as centralized and organized now as they were 25 to 30 years ago,” he said. “Technically, I guess there are gangs, but they’re more and more just kind of unaffiliated groups of kids.”
Social media is contributing to the violence. It contributes to a “retaliation environment,” Flynn said.
“It’s not just, ‘You’re on my street selling drugs, you’re also disrespecting me on social media.’ ”
In neighborhoods that have turned away from police, other members of the community take justice into their own hands, Lauger said. In this way, one murder can spur substantial violence.
“Individuals try to handle the injustices they experienced themselves. And it’s a form of vigilante justice, where you seek retribution for the wrongs that were dealt to you,” he said.
At a public vigil, Ross called for peace in the wake of her son’s death.
“I wouldn’t put this hurt on anybody,” she said. “I would not want his mother, his father, his sisters and brothers, his grandparents to go through what I’m going through.”
To Ross, Jemes was not the only life lost when he was killed. Her life as she knew it ended, she said. The future Ross long dreamt of died that day, as well.
“You want children, and you want grandchildren, and you want to be able to acquire stuff and leave your children a legacy,” Ross said.
“I have nobody. Everything that I’ve done in my life from March 2, 1999, up until this day was for Amir. Every day I woke up, every morning, and the first thing I thought about and still — to this day — it’s Amir.”