A cabdriver trying to make ends meet. A little boy who will never live to see kindergarten. A 13-year-old girl who dreamed of becoming a model.
They are just a few of Buffalo’s 2013 homicide victims – a year in which the number of killings dipped to 47, from 50 in the previous year.
And while handguns remained the weapon of choice for killers, a dramatically smaller number of people were killed or wounded by gunfire.
The drop in gun violence came as the city and its federal, state and local law enforcement partners made an all-out push to disarm violent street gangs.
Police say that one life lost by any type of violence is one too many but that the numbers show that a continued cohesive approach in going after the “worst of the worst” is making Buffalo a safer place to live.
There was a decrease of approximately 30 percent in shootings for 2013 compared with 2012, police said. Most notably, there were six fewer homicides caused by gunfire in 2013 compared with 2012. Last year, 36 people were shot to death; in 2012, gunfire took 42 lives.
Yet the act of homicide again proved to be unpredictable.
The number of killings for 2013 had appeared to be on track for a substantial reduction, but a rash of deadly shootings started Nov. 30, when two people were killed in separate handgun shootings and continued through December, with six more gun deaths.
Police arrested a man they believe may be responsible for three of those homicides. He was taken into custody on unrelated charges and an investigation continues into the fatal shootings that targeted street-corner drug dealers for their money.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and his top administrators, at the urging of Mayor Byron W. Brown, say they are constantly tweaking and reallocating resources to reduce violence.
Element of surprise
Guided by data pointing to crime hot spots, Derenda said, an area will be flooded with extra patrols and tactical measures to restore order.
“Our Strike Force officers are conducting daily roadblocks at multiple locations and surprising the criminal element. Because of that people are now less likely to carry guns knowing that they may be stopped at a safety checkpoint,” Derenda said.
There is also the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, each specializing in long-term investigations to take down street gangs whose drug activity goes hand in hand with guns. In the first half of 2013, several raids involving hundreds of federal agents, state troopers and city and suburban police officers swept up more than 80 alleged drug dealers and gang associates, thousands of dollars in drug money and dozens of guns.
“Arresting hard-core gang members is a key to lowering the homicide rate,” Derenda said.
Once a gangster is in custody, it can often lead to more information and additional arrests, authorities say, because defendants begin to cooperate with the hope that they will catch a break when it comes time to be sentenced.
In 2013, U.S. Attorney William C. Hochul Jr. announced a superseding indictment that resulted in nine suspects being charged in seven previously unsolved homicides in Buffalo.
But relying on street gang members to rat out one another is not the only tool utilized to round them up.
“It’s intelligence-driven. We’re not just collecting dots, we are connecting dots, and that comes from the Erie Crime Analysis Center and the input of all the police agencies,” Hochul said. “That’s what really allows us to target the worst of the worst.”
Every day at Buffalo Police Headquarters, a team of crime analysts, each with a specialty, review raw data from police reports and other sources to identify patterns and suspects.
But even with this more nimble approach in going after criminals to head off violence, 2013 had its share of heartbreak and bloodshed.
Death by handgun
Cabdriver Mazen M. Abdallah, 55, had started his day shortly after 5:40 a.m. March 6, picking up a fare at the Commodore Perry Homes. He was headed to the Bailey-Kensington section. After his dispatcher was unable to contact him on the two-way radio, fellow cabdrivers began swarming the neighborhood.
They knew something was wrong, and sure enough, Abdallah was found in the back seat of his cab on Norfolk Avenue, not far from Kensington Avenue. Maurice R. Howie, a former star quarterback for South Park High School, was charged with robbing and shooting Abdallah twice in the head with a .22-caliber handgun.
At 4 p.m. July 6, two groups of young people involved in a “territorial dispute” fought on Northland Avenue. Fourteen-year-old Myles D. Taylor III, spotting 16-year-old Kelmyne Jowyn Jones Jr. holding another boy in a headlock, witnesses said, broke away from the fight and retrieved a gun hidden beneath a nearby bush. He allegedly fired the gun at Kelmyne, who staggered away before collapsing and dying.
Tanisha Harris says she still cannot believe her son is dead.
“It’s terrible, every day that goes by, you don’t forget, and especially with the holidays, it only gets worse,” Harris said.
Young people who might consider violence, she said, need to be focused on their future rather than harming each other.
“There is so much more to life and these kids cause so much pain. They need to think about getting their education and saving their own lives instead of taking other people’s lives,” Harris said. “The violence is so unnecessary and ridiculous.”
Later the same day that her son was killed, a young man was slain. At 10:30 p.m. on Norway Park, Ronald L. Jones, 23, was fatally shot by someone with a handgun. His killer is yet to be arrested.
The number of 2013 homicides might have been one smaller had an ambulance arrived more quickly at a July 17 shooting, according to witnesses who watched as Kristopher Pride, 25, lay on Keystone Avenue bleeding from a gunshot wound that had knocked him off his bicycle. Witnesses said Pride was “alive and talking,” but it took more than 25 minutes for an ambulance to roll up to the scene.
A Rural/Metro Medical Services ambulance spokesman had said there was a “hugh spike in volume” from people in need of ambulance services and it might have been caused by a mid-July heat wave. Also cited was an ongoing problem – delays at local hospital emergency rooms, where ambulances can sometimes wait up to two hours in line before the hospital takes charge of the patient and the ambulance crew resumes answering calls.
Pride died at Erie County Medical Center, and his death prompted a public discussion of changes in the way medical service is provided. Instead of waiting until sickly individuals who repeatedly call 911 for an ambulance, “community paramedicine” paramedics would routinely visit these people and check on their health and administer medications, short circuiting the need for an ambulance. This approach already happens in other places, such as Washington, D.C., and San Diego.
Violence on children
Sometimes, though, not even the swiftest delivery of emergency medical care and transportation can save a person from becoming a homicide statistic.
As 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks was carried out of his family’s West Side apartment the evening of Sept. 15 in the arms of a paramedic, his neighbors watched in sorrow. They had initially thought the ambulance had arrived to take the boy’s pregnant mother to the hospital to give birth to her daughter.
The mother’s live-in boyfriend, who was baby-sitting Eain, allegedly beat him so fiercely that he suffered massive brain injuries and was placed on life support. Two days later, Eain died. Matthew W. Kuzdzal, 26, was charged with second-degree murder. Once autopsy results were completed, Kuzdzal was also charged with sexually attacking the boy.
Eain’s relatives publicly complained that they had tried to have the child removed from the custody of his mother, Nora Brooks, and her boyfriend on numerous occasions by calling a state child abuse hotline and Erie County Child Protective Services.
Their complaints of physical abuse inflicted on Eain, they said, were found without merit. After Eain’s death, Erie County Social Services conducted an investigation, and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s administration fired two county Child Protective Services caseworkers and suspended two CPS supervisors.
Robin Hart, Eain’s maternal grandmother, spoke at an Assembly hearing in November and urged new laws that would allow for those who make child-abuse complaints to receive updates in order to make the child-abuse investigation process more accountable.
“It’s not just Eain. … It’s all the rest of the children who haven’t been in the newspaper. There are still children out there being beaten,” Hart said.
About two weeks before Eain was killed, there was the fatal stabbing of 13-year-old Lanasha “Nay Nay” Rollerson. Her family and friends recalled that she dreamed of one day becoming a model. Her dream ended abruptly when in the early hours of Sept. 1, following a late-night party in a Hagen Street apartment, she was stabbed multiple times.
Darshawn Morris, 21, who hosted the party, was charged with second-degree murder, after police received a tip that he had gone to ECMC for treatment of undisclosed injuries. When he was discharged, police took him into custody.
Morris was one of 13 people arrested for 2013 homicides, representing a 29 percent clearance rate in solving homicides, but Derenda pointed out that about a dozen more homicides from past years were also cleared in 2013.
Collectively, 2013 crime in all categories, whether it be assault or theft, continued a multiyear trend of dropping, the commissioner added.
“We have seen an approximate 7 percent decrease in all crime bringing us to a drop of over 25 percent in the last eight years,” he said.
Part of the effort to further reduce bloodshed in 2013 included reaching out beyond the traditional means of relying on professional crime-fighters by formalizing a relationship with Buffalo Peacemakers, a community organization that takes preemptive steps to stop violence.
The Rev. James E. Giles, head of Buffalo Peacemakers, said the group’s members works with police at community events and are easily spotted in their yellow T-shirts with the words “Buffalo Peacemaker” on them. Their job, Giles said, is to spot trouble brewing and halt it before it gets out of hand.
In August, the Brown administration awarded the Peacemakers $200,000 over two years to pay the group’s 11 part-time volunteers stipends for their work, which also includes going out into communities and talking with young people, trying to provide them with guidance and a sense of purpose.
“We’re out there having conversations with gang members to hopefully to encourage them to resolve their matters peacefully. One of the critical things that happened this year is that we established relations,” Giles said.
“When they see us, they tend to think more about consequences because we‘ve talked about how violence hurts communities, hurts families and really destroys the neighborhood.”
And Peacemakers, Giles added, are also offering an incentive to get young people to give up violence.
“We tell them we are developing programs where there may be jobs coming up and they may employable. We like to say nothing stops a bullet like a job.”