Gunshots rang out on Moeller Street one day last week and in front of an Allentown bar the next, more reminders that, despite a highly touted drop in violent crime in recent years, Buffalo can be a dangerous city.
In fact, a Buffalo News analysis found that Buffalo has the fourth-highest violent crime rate among cities of similar size throughout the country.
And what happens after those crimes occur?
Police officials say the department does as good a job as any in the country solving crimes – maybe even better. But Buffalo police officials also acknowledge they don’t have much statistical documentation to back up that claim. For at least the last eight to nine years, the department has underreported its clearance rates to the FBI because of a misunderstanding over how to calculate clearance, especially for homicides, the department recently learned.
“We were doing it wrong,” acknowledged Commissioner Daniel Derenda, a former deputy commissioner who took the city’s top cop job in 2010. “We are going to get the data corrected.”
Crime has steadily dropped in Buffalo over the past decade, with the number of serious violent crimes down 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2013, and the number of serious property crimes down 25.3 percent, according to Police Department statistics. Those percentages exceed the drop in crimes that are also falling at a strong pace nationally.
But the Buffalo decline occurred while the city’s population dropped by 8 percent and the nation’s population increased by 6 percent.
So on a per capita basis, Buffalo’s drop in crime trails the national rate – 10 percent less of a drop per capita for violent crime and 4.5 percent less of a drop for property crime between 2005 and 2012, the News found.
The result is that Buffalo is safer than it was a decade ago, but remains one of the most violent midsize cities with populations between 200,000 and 325,000, the News found.
The Buffalo News analysis of crime statistics for 2012 – the most recent year for which national data is available from the FBI reporting system – found Buffalo’s murders, rapes, robbery and serious assaults on a per capita basis all placed the city among the top 10 of 56 midsize cities.
The large number of Buffalo robberies pulled the city into fourth place for total violent crimes. Only St. Louis; Stockton, Calif.; and Birmingham, Ala. had a more-violent crime rate per capita than Buffalo.
City property crimes ranked 14th on a per capita basis among the 56 cities.
Buffalo reported 12.5 violent and 48 property crimes per 1,000 residents in 2013. That was down from 13 violent and 51 property crimes per 1,000 just a year before, and 14 violent and 59 property crimes per 1,000 in 2005.
Some Buffalo police officials objected to a per capita comparison of Buffalo with other cities, saying Buffalo’s population swells well beyond its census numbers during the work day and when events are held on the waterfront, downtown and in the business districts.
The police commissioner said he focuses on comparing Buffalo’s annual crime statistics.
“I cannot concentrate on other cities,” Derenda said. “I can compare ourselves to ourselves. We’ve lowered the numbers. Each year we look to do better.”
Buffalo crime declines
The Buffalo Police Department provided statistics for 2005 through 2013 that show total and per capita crime declining in the city for the seven categories of what the FBI describes as serious violent and property crime – rape, murder, robbery and assault as well as burglary, larceny and vehicle theft.
National data is not yet available for all of last year, but national data for 2005 to 2012 shows declines in all seven categories between those years as well. During those years, violent crime in Buffalo dropped by 14.1 percent, while violent crime nationally dropped by 12.7 percent. But on a per capita basis, Buffalo’s violent crime dropped 7.3 percent compared with the national 17.5 percent decline.
Crime is declining across the country, analysts say, because of an aging baby boom population, the end of the crack cocaine epidemic and improved police techniques, including technology.
Derenda, however, noted that a heroin epidemic has replaced the crack cocaine epidemic, bringing a new rash in burglaries and other drug-related crimes.
He credits proactive initiatives during the Brown administration – including greater police visibility and increased coordination with state and federal law enforcement to combat gang activity – with helping to reduce Buffalo’s crime.
Derenda added that the department’s proactive approach is also among the reasons it may seem that Buffalo police officers are getting into more trouble lately. The department is getting out in front of the cases, he said.
Flawed clearance rates
In addition to comparing crime rates for Buffalo with similar-sized cities, The Buffalo News analyzed clearance rates that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system collects.
The Buffalo News analysis of data Buffalo police submitted to that system found the Police Department’s clearance rates for solving violent crimes – particularly murder – fell well below the national average.
But after reviewing the News analysis, Derenda said he knew something was wrong with the numbers. He spoke with his unit heads and learned the clearance reports Buffalo has been submitting to the FBI were flawed. The Police Department didn’t include arrests made in a current year for crimes committed in previous years. The department also didn’t clear cases when alleged victims decided not to prosecute. And the department didn’t count multiple cases that were solved by a single arrest, he said.
Specifically, the commissioner provided documents to back up his claims about homicide clearance rates being underreported. In 2012, for example, Buffalo police reported 48 homicides and solving 12, for a clearance rate of 25 percent – well below the national clearance average of 62.5 percent.
But Buffalo’s homicide unit cleared 14 of 50 homicides in 2012 and another 18 homicides from previous years, according to documents Derenda provided. With those numbers included – as they should have been under the FBI reporting guidelines – the 2012 homicide clearance rate was 64 percent.
Derenda provided The Buffalo News documentation for all homicides cleared from 2009 to 2013, showing annual clearance rates – when all cases solved during the year are included – ranging from 54.6 to 67 percent.
The reports show it is typical for the homicide unit in any year to solve 10 or so cases from previous years.
Derenda did not have documents for other crimes solved, but he provided anecdotal evidence of the flaws in the way his chiefs and other department heads have reported clearances. Police Inspector Joseph Strano said his office, which is responsible for submitting the crime reports, is now redoing clearance reports going back to Jan. 1 of this year to correct the mistakes.
Strano said he determined that the department did the reports improperly for the past eight or nine years. A report technician working in his office received inaccurate information from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services on how the federal clearance reports should be done, Strano said. The report technician then relayed that faulty information to other police personnel over the years, he said.
Derenda predicted that when the reports are done properly, they will show that the Buffalo Police Department has a strong clearance rate.
“We think we are doing pretty good,” Derenda said.
As for recent shootings, there’s no word yet on who fired a gun at the Moeller Street house, but police arrested a suspect in the Allentown shooting.