Since our last issue, violent crime has continued its resurgence in the Queen City, with stories of a woman being slashed repeatedly in an argument over $200 and a police officer coming under attack after pulling over a stolen vehicle. There are many theories about why violent crime rates tend to soar on occasion, but massive riots are different in that their underlying causes can often be attributed to specific policies of provocation in the face of deteriorating social conditions.
In a community that is one of the most racially divided in the nation, it is important to look at the successes and failures in the recent past to try to better understand how to cope with the domestic and drug-related violence that can become an epidemic in a culture of poverty and also to try to implement policies that will help avoid the man-made disaster of rioting. Community Policing Under Masiello
In the late nineties, Mayor Anthony Masiello and Police Chief Rocco Diina credited themselves with bringing about a reduction in violent crimes in the City of Buffalo. Buffalo's own crack epidemic had receded from its peak in the early nineties. These declines, however, mirrored nation-wide trends. Experts have theories about why this trend took place, but most agree that there is no simple reason for the decline.
Gil Kerlikowske, Diina's predecessor, had set lofty goals of modernizing the Buffalo Police Department and for improving relations between Buffalo's diverse communities and the BPD. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Kerlikowske's progressive agenda attracted national attention. In response to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the charges of police brutality during the event, the highly regarded Kerlikowske was offered and accepted the job of police chief in an effort to heal that city's rifts.
In a 1996 interview with Alt, Kerlikowske discussed an assessment of the Buffalo Police. It had a 1960s mentality, the professional model of policing. Its a very narrow range in which we only enforce the law, and we will tell people what is best for them. We know that style is not effective.
When asked about the impact of drug laws on civil liberties and the breakdown of neighborhoods, Kerlikowske said, I think it is a big mistake for police commissioners to get involved in the setting of laws a lot of police chiefs say that drugs are not just a crime and justice problem but are also a social problem, a public health problem, and I agree. You cant separate poverty, lack of jobs, boarded-up housing, and social justice from crime and drugs.
From Reform to RJD
Rocco Diina, a political crony of Masiello, brought a different executive style to the table. Diina came into the job of Buffalo's top cop after a controversial political campaign for Erie County sheriff, where the potential conflict of interest between his private security firm and his role as sheriff contributed to his defeat. At the top of his agenda on his new job was an attack on the Police Benevolent Association, the union for Buffalo's police officers.
Diina created more controversy when he effectively had Channel 2 news anchor Rich Kellman censured for asking questions about his relationship with the rank and file Buffalo cops. This was followed by an FBI sting of the Buffalo Police Narcotics Squad. Many police officers blamed lax oversight of the narcotics squad by Diina as a contributing factor in the scandal, which eventually resulted in Buffalo cop Jonathan Parker being sentenced.
RJD, Diina's private security firm (which is now run by his brother), took over security at the Buffalo Convention Center, bringing up the same ethical concerns that dogged Diina in the race for Erie County Sheriff. Diinas participation in a real estate deal with Theatre Place Associates that took in millions of dollars in HUD money and was then flipped did nothing to dispel concerns over Buffalos top cop.
From Weed & Seed to Operation Clean Sweep
Just prior to Diina's arrival, the Buffalo Police began engaging in a federal program intended to aggressively go after drug offenders, while simultaneously strengthening relations with community leaders in troubled neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way, the Weed and Seed program veered away from a policy of community vigilance and engagement toward what many saw as a policy of intimidation.
The advent of the Clean Sweep program departed significantly from Kerlikowske's positive strategy of community involvement. The program was touted as a quality of life assistance program. Under the program, a vast array of law enforcement officials from the federal, state, and local levels went door to door in some of the citys troubled neighborhoods, asking homeowners and tenants for entry into homes to check on their safety. Officials from utility and cable companies accompanied them to scout for illegal service and warn of late payments.
The appearance of the posse was reassuring to some but menacing to others, particularly those on the west side, who were unsure of their right to refuse the group entry into their homes. Less publicized was the involvement of the DEA. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a freedom of information request, seeking to obtain copies of videotapes taken from the Maryland, West, and Nineteenth Street Clean Sweeps. They were informed that, The Drug Enforcement Agency objects to the release of these video recordings and/or pictures, as this could seriously jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations
Reacting to Increased Violence With Strong Arm Tactics Clean Sweep represented a mild provocation compared to Operation Hammer in Los Angeles. The involvement of outside law enforcement agencies in Buffalos drug war has become a trend and its becoming clear that Diina is in favor of the more aggressive tactics that these outsiders employ.
After an increase in violent crime last year, the response was a Violent Crimes Task Force, bringing in New York State troopers and federal agents, including the DEA, to augment the Buffalo Police Department. Diina told The Buffalo News that the effort was designed to perform as many drug busts and search warrants as possible, and also "to focus on confiscating illegal firearms and taking drug dealers and gang members off the streets.
Diina also called for an increase in Clean Sweeps, despite criticisms over its intrusiveness and overall effectiveness in combating crime.
No one would say that gang violence, particularly black on black violence, is a problem that should not be addressed. But draconian drug war strategies that have been carried out in other racially divided communities have often had unintended consequences, as we have seen in the cases of Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Benton Harbor.
Many residents and homeowners in afflicted neighborhoods applaud police crackdowns, and high profile drug busts on the television news make many residents feel safer. Unfortunately, underground economies ????????????????
While its doubtful as to whether the rank and file of the Buffalo Police Department share their chiefs enthusiasm for pushing the envelope in the war on drugs, if the Violent Crimes Task Force pushes too far, the Buffalo cops, not their police chief, will be the ones to inherit the blame. By John McMahon
In the last issue of Alt, we took a look at three instances of the worst rioting seen in American cities. One common thread that precipitated these events, which took place in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and last summer in Benton Harbor, Mich., was a sharp escalation in the war on drugs.