NIAGARA FALLS – As tourists flock here in the spring and summer, wily thieves are often not far behind.
After looking over crime statistics from this past tourist season, the Niagara Falls Police Department is coming up with plans to make the downtown area safer next year.
Overall, police say, the numbers are good, with the number of vehicle break-ins down by 8 percent compared with 2012. But in August alone, there was a spike in vehicle break-ins – up by 42 percent from August of 2012. A third of the incidents were in the downtown tourist areas.
Thieves have been making off with electronics, such as cellphones, laptops, cameras and GPS devices. And most of the crimes occurred during daylight, primarily between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Notably, credit cards that were stolen from vehicles in Niagara Falls often were used in the Buffalo area. Cars and large-capacity vans with out-of-state license plates were the prime targets.
“I don’t think it was an unusual summer, but unfortunately, because of the influx of tourists, we usually have a spike in property crime around the tourist season. It plagues us every year,” said Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto. “This year, we took extraordinary measures to combat it. We put officers on bicycle patrol, officers walking downtown and at every festival down there.”
But DalPorto said the department has to increase uniformed presence next summer with the “Ranger Program.” He said officials had hoped to start the program this past summer but are still awaiting approval from the City Council and $150,000 in funding in the 2014 budget from the Community Development Department. That agency handles funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It would be a civilian presence,” DalPorto said of the plans for a uniformed patrol in the downtown tourist areas. “They will be under the umbrella of the Police Department, but they will basically be a uniformed presence to provide eyes and ears to the officers down there.”
DalPorto said that the rangers would have no police powers but that the uniformed presence is expected to not only deter crime, but to provide a feeling of safety.
“The advantage to [rangers] is that we put a mass amount of people down there to deter crime at a much lower price tag than it would cost to put police officers down there,” DalPorto said. “They will be equipped with radios so they can call an officer in if enforcement action needs to be taken, but hopefully this will deter as much crime as possible.”
If funding is approved, he said, the hope is that there would be a dozen people working in flexible daytime shifts downtown throughout the next tourist season.
He said that college students who are in the area for the summer will be considered and that they will go through safety training.
Administrative Lt. Nicholas Ligammari said that other tourist towns with similar programs were studied as a model for the one in Niagara Falls.
“Sometimes they call them ambassadors, but this is a step up” Ligammari said. “We also want them to know where to send people for things do, places to eat. Also, general safety, like a lost child. So much of our economy depends on the tourists.”
“We want to provide quality service to residents,” dalPorto said, “but we also have to provide a safe area for tourists.”
DalPorto and Ligammari said they also have been working with the U.S. Department of Justice to prevent overall crimes in the downtown area.
“We are trying to think outside the box and get away from traditional strategies that haven’t worked,” DalPorto said. “We are trying to come up with new, fresh strategies that will finally address this problem and send a message to criminals that Niagara Falls is not a place to break into cars or steal property.”
Ligammari added, “The big thing is perception. You may only be the one person that month who got their car broken into, but that was enough for you to have a negative outlook on Niagara Falls.”
DalPorto said police are already gearing up for their next traditionally heavy day of break-ins – Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving – and are encouraging shoppers and visitors to lock things up and keep bags out of view.