Friday, August 26, 2022

Buffalo police use hot spot policing to curb violence

 The red, white and blue lights on the top of the two patrol cars swirled, illuminating the intersection of Walden Avenue and Harmonia Street the night of Aug. 10.

A lieutenant and two patrol officers walked around. Drivers slowed and peered out their windows. A worker at the convenience store on the corner stepped outside.

But it wasn't a 911 call that drew the police to Walden Avenue that night.

Buffalo police officers on duty at a micro hot spot, a pinpoint area where there's a higher concentration of violent crime on  Aug. 10, 2022, reported the The Buffalo News.

They were in that precise location because police identified it as a "micro hot spot." Since June, two people were shot and another stabbed within about a block of that intersection – a sign there could be more violence in the future.

The officers' assignment: park their cars, put on their lights, walk around and talk to whoever is out and about. 

"We're trying to make a presence," said Officer Ann Devaney, who, along with her partner, Officer Andrew Moffett, and Lt. Jim Otwell, spent about 15 minutes at  the intersection.

Officer Ann Devaney assigned on post to a micro hot spot, a pinpoint area where there's a higher concentration of violent crime on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. 

Minh Connors / Buffalo News

The idea: Put police officers in the places where there has been recent gun violence.

The police aren't there to ticket drivers and arrest people, although they can if they see a crime in progress or a traffic violation. But that's not the point.

"Our presence alone will act as a deterrence for any other gun violence," Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said.

After two years of near record-high numbers of shootings in Buffalo, gun violence is on the decline in the city, even when the May 14 massacre at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue that left 10 dead and three more shot is factored in.

Police officers on duty at a micro hot spot, a pinpoint area where there's a higher concentration of violent crime on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. 

Shootings are down about 36% in the first seven months of this year, compared to 2021, according to Buffalo police data. For the month of July, usually one of the busiest for crimes, the number of people who were shot was down 65%, compared to both 2020 and 2021. Shootings in cities across the state outside of New York City have overall shown a decrease in shootings, but Albany and Syracuse have continued to see increases, according to data from the state.

 "This new strategy, which is very data-driven, where we identify hot spots and then send police into hot spots for foot patrol has helped to build the community and police relationship," Mayor Byron Brown said.

Basing crime fighting tactics on hot spots has critics. Advocates for criminal justice reform have raised questions, saying they lead to disproportionate arrests and ticketing in poor communities of color. There's a years-long lawsuit pending against the Buffalo Police Department over traffic checkpoints in mostly minority neighborhoods.

The grid

The Buffalo Police Department began employing their new strategy about a year ago, amid an increase in shootings. It was based on an approach used by the Dallas Police Department.

Patrol officers were sent to areas where shootings had previously been reported to act as a physical deterrent to more crime.

At the same time, Buffalo police, working with the Erie County Sheriff's Office, State Police, the FBI and ATF, concentrated investigations on the "trigger pullers and gun traffickers," as Gramaglia calls those responsible for most of the gun violence in the city, roughly 75 people, according to police estimates. The law enforcement agencies executed search warrants and filed charges, in state and federal courts, to get some of those accused of violence off the streets.

The violence continued, but seemed to be slowing down.

In March, after Gramaglia became the new commissioner, he began fine-tuning the hot spot strategy.

It all begins with a digital map of the city, created with the help of data from the Erie Crime Analysis Center, a state-funded center that provides data and intelligence to the Buffalo Police Department.

First, the city is divided up into a grid of about 4,700 500-foot-by-500-foot squares. That's about the size of a small city block, in many cases smaller than a block.

Then, they overlay all of the shootings on the map – red for shootings with injuries or deaths and blue for "shots fired."

The dots include data on the date and time of the shootings, which are used to create a "timed heat map." The more recent the incident, the bigger the dot. The map is updated in real time as officers file their reports.

Looking at data over the previous 90 days, the police can pinpoint "micro hot spots."

Once a week, the data is shared and discussed at intelligence briefings, which are held on a rotating basis at the department's five police districts. Patrol officers are part of those meetings.

"Who knows more about what's going on in a neighborhood than the unformed officers patrolling them?" Gramaglia said.

They discuss which spots to target and who will go where and when. The aim is to have officers going to hot spots throughout the day, spending 10 to 15 minutes at each location. The assignments are called "directed patrols."

Patrol officers are expected to do directed patrols in between answering 911 calls. Other officers who are on special details, such as those specifically aimed at reducing gun violence, spend their shifts going on one directed patrol to the next. The patrols are largely funded through grants from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Officers Joseph Walters and Rick Lopez, both veteran cops with decades on the job, were on Broadway near Sears Street, an area that's seen some extreme violence this summer. In June, two officers driving on Broadway heard gunfire and found a mortally wounded man in front of a laundromat in a strip mall at the intersection. The suspect then reportedly fired shots at the officers through their windshield. Other officers chased the suspect on foot through a parking lot to Playter Street and shot him multiple times. He survived and has since been charged with murder, attempted murder and illegal gun possession.

Lopez, a 37-year veteran and the second most senior officer in the department, said he's seen a lot of new initiatives. The directed patrols, he said, are like a new version of a foot patrol, where precinct cops would spend their entire shifts walking around their designated area.

"I started out the walking the beat," Lopez said. "I didn't see the inside of a car for the first 18 months on the job."

He said the hot spots data give police officers a chance to interact with the public, letting them get to know people who live and work there as they return to the same locations. That's a key part of the strategy, Gramaglia said.

It is not just sitting in a patrol car.

"You're getting out of the car, engaging with any residents that are out there," Gramaglia said.

"You're engaging in conversations," he added. "You're asking about problems that are occurring."

There aren't enough officers to conduct foot patrols in every neighborhood, he noted. The hot spot approach gives him "the ability to have smaller doses of foot patrols in a more frequent manner in the areas that are shown to have a higher propensity for gun violence," he said.

Across town on the same Wednesday, Lt. Eric Hofschneider and officers Steven Zappia and Brenden Robinson were on a directed patrol on Herkimer and West Ferry streets.

"There have been quite a few shots fired around here," Zappia said. 

They said when they pulled up, they saw a group of people gathered on a front yard on Herkimer. The people scattered when they saw the police car approach. As they walked down the block, they stopped to talk to a woman who seemed a little confused.

Hofschneider said he feels like the patrols are getting noticed.

"We're being proactive," he said. "Just our presence deters crime."

The falling gun violence numbers, Gramaglia said, "speak for themselves." Earlier this month, a week went by without any shootings in the city. The weekly shoot review meeting to analyze recent shootings was canceled.

"I absolutely believe that this is working," Gramaglia said.

To better gauge the hot spot strategy's effectiveness, Gramaglia is working with Dr. Scott Phillips, a criminologist at SUNY Buffalo State College. They have produced an initial report outlining the strategy, and will revisit it as more data become available.

Brown said the micro hot spot strategy should be a model for other cities, and he recently discussed it with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Little Rock, Ark., Mayor Frank Scott Jr. in a virtual panel on gun violence and citizen engagement.

"This approach is getting a lot of attention," Brown said. "But I suspect if it continues to be as success, as it has been, it will get even more attention nationally."

'A different vibe'

Lt. Mark Cyrek and Officer Kevin Kindzierski walked up Thatcher Avenue, past a house where there was a fatal shooting a month earlier. More recently, there was a confirmed "shots fired" call on the street.

"Hi. How are you doing?" they said to a woman as she got into her van, looking curiously at the officers and the flashing lights of their car. A man stood outside in his driveway, checking out the scene.

"I've been seeing the police out here every night," sad the man, who identified himself only as Keith and didn't want to give his full name, given the recent gun violence on his street.

He didn't witness or hear the shootings, he said. "But I heard about it," he added.

Keith said he's lived on Thatcher for more than two decades and has seen all kinds of police activity over the years.

"They'd ticket you. Pat you down," he recalled.

He said the recent patrols seem different.

"They're friendlier. They drive by and wave," he said. "I think it's better. I don't know if it works. But I can feel the atmosphere. It's a different vibe."

Visualize Dom Delouise in Blazing Saddles, yelling through megaphone. If you're quitting based on your boss being mean and demanding , you probably didn't need the job, or have never lived outside of academics or theater. People in both industries are known for overblown drama.

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