Feds announce task force amid escalating gun violence in Buffalo

The effort will involve "targeted enforcement" in which police will focus on "the worst of the worst," officials said

By Aaron Besecker
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Federal prosecutors on Thursday announced a new task force whose goal is to help combat the skyrocketing number of shootings and killings in Buffalo.

The effort, initially slated to last 60 days, will involve "targeted enforcement," in which police will focus on a "small number" of individuals — "the worst of the worst in terms of our violent offenders," said U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy.

Authorities will review daily all cases involving gun violence and decide whether accused individuals should face state or federal charges, or both, Kennedy said.

Investigators at different agencies will share more intelligence, and law enforcement will boost its engagement with the community, he said.

"But we don't want to turn these communities of violence into minimum security prisons," he said. "We're going to fish with a spear, not with a net."

The effort, known as the Violence Prevention and Elimination Response, or VIPER, task force, will take federal personnel already working locally on other matters and dedicate them to addressing the surge in shootings and gun-involved homicides.

Thursday's announcement in JFK Park — the scene of a June 23 quadruple shooting that wounded an 8-year-old boy — also included representatives of the Buffalo Police Department, Erie County District Attorney's Office, Erie County Sheriff's Office, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security Investigations and Drug Enforcement Administration.

From Jan. 1 through June 30, 177 people were injured or killed in shootings in Buffalo, according to the latest Buffalo Police Department data. That's a 64% increase over the average of 108 over the last decade, according to a Buffalo News analysis of police data.

Those numbers also represent a sharp increase from the first six months of 2019 and 2020, when there were 78 and 120 victims, respectively.

Over the first six months of the year, the number of homicides were more than twice the city's average for the same period over the last 10 years, according to a News analysis.

Buffalo's not alone when it comes to the rising levels of gun violence. Other cities across the country are seeing a similar surge.

One advantage for law enforcement in bringing federal cases, Kennedy said, is federal prosecutors don't work under the "same constraints" as county and state prosecutors.

"We have the ability to seek to hold people pending trial and to interrupt that cycle of violence," he said.

Though it's not clear what's behind the rising violence, many police and law enforcement officials have said one of the reasons for the increase in shootings is the state's bail reform, which prevents judges from setting bail for individuals accused of most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Federal authorities face a challenge with and are sensitive to concerns raised in recent years about over-policing in communities whose residents are predominantly persons of color, Kennedy said.

That's part of the reason why the task force will focus on having police being proactive in a targeted manner. That, along with engaging with the community and not just responding after the violence occurs, should help drive down the violence, Kennedy said.

"In order to stop this violence, we need the help of the good and decent citizens living in these communities most impacted by the violence. I don't think it's any coincidence that the increase in violence experienced over the last 18 months or so coincides with the deterioration of police and community relations," Kennedy said Thursday. "My request to the community is that we adjust our collective mindset. The time has come for us, for everyone to stop thinking of us vs. them, as the community vs. the cops.

"It's time for us to start thinking of us vs. them as the community and the cops vs. violent offenders," he said.

The task force's work "will help the community," said Murray Holman, executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition, an organization dedicated to reducing street violence.

"Let's get this message clear: We are about taking back our community along with law enforcement. Law enforcement plays a major part," Holman said. "Bad guys, we can get them off the street or we can get them job training and opportunities, but the Peacemakers, the Mad Dads, Buffalo United Front, Back to Basics, all these groups that we have out here are saying please, enough is enough."

(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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