Ever since Bernard A. Tolbert entered the race for mayor earlier this year, his campaign has never missed an opportunity to refer to him with his most impressive title: former special agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the FBI.
If ever there was a local candidate who is an expert in fighting crime, it would be a 22-year veteran of one of the world’s elite law enforcement organizations.
But while Byron W. Brown has never worn a badge, the incumbent seeks a third term as mayor by running on a record he says makes Buffalo a safer city.
Even as the city struggles with poverty so severe that it ranks as one of the nation’s poorest, Brown contends that his proactive measures are working – and that the economic development that his administration has fostered will further reduce crime spawned by joblessness and desperation.
It’s part of Brown’s one-word campaign theme: “progress.”
As Brown and Tolbert head toward Tuesday’s Democratic primary election, both have catapulted crime to the top of their agendas.
Tolbert lists grim statistics that paint a crime-ridden city as part of “Byron Brown’s Buffalo.” Brown rallies around his own set of numbers showing crime on the wane because of a Police Department bolstered by the latest technology and equipment.
Second possibly only to the crisis in Buffalo public schools, crime has dominated the campaign in speeches, debates and especially television ads. And it appears that whether crime is up or down depends entirely on which candidate is talking.
Tolbert points to FBI statistics listing Buffalo as the nation’s 11th-most-violent city. Though some critics say he has been slow to put faces and human stories on the statistics, this week he jumped on a trio of West Side shootings that left a man dead.
He said Buffalonians cannot possibly feel confident about their safety in light of such violence, and again used statistics to make his point.
“As the homicide rate continues to rise, the potential for Buffalo citizens to be involved, or worse yet lose their lives, in a violent crime is 1 in 80,” he said. “In New York City, where the population is more than eight times that of Buffalo’s, the potential for a resident to be involved in a violent crime is 1 in 251 – or 30 percent less than Buffalo.”
Tolbert dismisses mayoral claims about reducing crime as irrelevant if the opposite perception is created.
“Do I think he’s failed? Yes,” Tolbert said about the mayor and crime. “I talk to so many people, and they tell me they don’t feel safe.”
Tolbert’s critics say he makes claims he can’t prove, and Tolbert acknowledges he often relies on anecdotes. But police officers, he says, tell him that crime numbers are “fudged,” which the Police Department denies. When he was endorsed by the police union, Tolbert said it used terms such as “rampant” to describe the city’s crime level.
While Tolbert and Brown spar over whether the Police Department has grown or shrunk under the mayor, the challenger believes that it needs beefing up.
“The Police Department needs more officers; we need more school resource officers,” he said. Adding more police officers on streets, he said, would provide more opportunities to fight crime before it takes place.
“We have a huge gang problem, and we can develop relationships and develop intelligence,” Tolbert said. “We have to be more strategic in how we use them.”
Throughout the campaign Tolbert has pointed to a July “summit” on crime organized by two county legislators as representative of the Brown administration’s attitude. Brown did not show up, and Tolbert has never let him forget it.
“That library room was standing room only,” Tolbert said, referring to the forum in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue. “That many people were saying they don’t feel safe and crime causes them to rethink why they live in the city.
“To have no one there, to me, that’s a failure. Message to the people: We’re not that concerned about it.”
And after a long career with the FBI and heading security for the National Basketball Association, Tolbert says his background offers an alternative.
“It allows me to bring knowledge of law enforcement and what it takes to make it work,” he said, emphasizing that his years in the FBI provided experience at the street and managerial levels.
Brown, meanwhile, dismisses FBI statistics ranking Buffalo as the 11th-most-violent city. He said the federal agency’s numbers lag behind his own data showing a 20 percent decrease in overall crime, a 14 percent decrease in violent crime, and a 30 percent decrease in shootings with injuries. And after the city recorded 50 homicides in 2012, it is on a slower pace this year, with 27 so far.
He points to new investments in crime-fighting technology, more police officers and joint crime-fighting ventures with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the State Police.
“The city is safer than when I took office,” he says flatly.
Take surveillance cameras as an example, the mayor says. The city has installed 205 at key locations to monitor traffic and record potential crimes.
“We’ve had another 600 requests, and in January will add 50 more,” Brown said. “That’s how popular they are.”
Brown also took credit for an “enhanced” school resource officer program and appointing the first chief of school security. He touts his initiative to take 11,135 guns off the street, about 4,700 of them through his controversial gun-buyback program.
And he said the city “sent a message” that the books are never closed on any crime committed in Buffalo by re-establishing a Cold Case Squad within the Police Department.
But what about the perception that Tolbert insists pervades the city – that Buffalo is not safe?
During a recent televised debate, the mayor showed rare emotion when responding to a question on crime. He pointed out he was the only one on the debate stage who had to deal with families affected by crime, or visit victims in the hospital, or attend funerals of those killed.
“Any one crime is one too many,” he said. “When it happens to someone, it’s devastating. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to bring in new technology and create these partnerships to make a difference.”