Police and prosecutors in Niagara County are forming a new task force, in light of a rise in violent crime this year. While representatives of numerous agencies are involved, leaders say an important component will be help from the public to break cases still unsolved.
Niagara Falls Police hosted Friday's announcement of the launch of the new Niagara County Violent Crime Task Force. Police Superintendent Thomas Licata says the first talks about the new panel were held weeks ago.
"Gun violence had been increasing as the summer progressed. As law enforcement officials in the city and the county, we were concerned that we could be experiencing the same thing that other municipalities had been experiencing, record breaking homicides throughout New York State," he said.
Talks between Licata and Acting Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti were held in August and soon after, further discussions were held with additional law enforcement partners to form the task force.
In the City of Niagara Falls, there have been 14 recorded homicides so far this year. The most recent was Tuesday, when 25-year-old Shakiya Boyce was fatally shot at 20th Street and Center Avenue. In a tragic irony, she had just left funeral services for the victim of an earlier homicide.
"In my 23 years working here in Niagara County, never have I gotten up in the middle of the night so much to receive the phone calls of another life lost. When those calls come in, I shudder because I know it's another mother, another father, another grandparent, another sibling, another child that has to suffer that grave loss," said Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek. "Every day, we work with our partners to try to solve these crimes, and also to use our Niagara County Intelligence and Crime Analyst Center to look at the non-fatal shootings, to try to give us an idea of where we can focus to stop the next homicide from happening. It's tragic. It's really loss that does not have to happen. And so much of it is stemming from gun violence in this community."
Licata noted that of the 14 homicide cases in the city this year, more than half have been solved. He would not provide a number, though, explaining that in some cases there were suspects who may not be aware that police have them in their sight.
US Attorney James P. Kennedy was also present, announcing his office is among the task force's members.
"This explosion in violent crime is not limited to Niagara Falls. Just a few days ago, Governor Cuomo announced that shootings in New York City are up 100 percent. And in the City of Buffalo, shooting victims are up 96 percent," he said. "Today, the biggest danger to the lives of those living in our inner cities is violent crime. The leading cause of death for young Black males in this country is homicide. Each year, approximately 7,500 Black Americans are victims of homicide. Every one of those lives mattered."
This year's increase in violent crime in Niagara County, officials say, is only the second spike in the past 30 years. The last happened in 2015. Kennedy suggests the upward trend stemmed from criticism of police following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Police, he stated, began to withdraw out of concern for further criticism and litigation, stopping proactive policing efforts while doing so.
The economic strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as renewed racial and social tensions, are considered factors in this year's rise in violent crime.
"Your lives do matter. And to prove that your lives matter, we will not back down," Kennedy said. "We will hold accountable those in the community who fail to meet our social societal standards, as expressed in our nation's laws used to regulate behavior of all Americans. But as we undertake that task, remember this: our purpose in focusing our policing efforts in your neighborhood is not because we are out to get you. It's because we are out to protect you."
Meanwhile, the public is being urged to play a part in helping law enforcers with outstanding cases. Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino says while there are many talented individuals within the task force, they'll be more successful with public assistance.
"As I look around, and I talk with some of the folks who are on the task force, I know that they have a singular focus. I know that they will be able to accomplish the task. And I also am confident that with the community's help, we're going to be able to tackle the problem," he said. "Once again, as we did during those times when demonstrations were happening, we're going to be able to show an opportunity again for Niagara Falls to do the best that it can in a difficult situation.
Licata noted that there are several options through which the public can help. There is the police department's tip line, (716) 286-4591, a resource center at 3001 9th Street where citizens may share information with liaisons who then share it with police, and a "suggestion box" found within the department's website.
Officials also faced questions about "defund the police," a rallying call by many activists protesting police brutality during this summer's protests. Some using the phrase have said what it means to "defund" is to reprioritize police functions, and utilize mental health professionals and social workers to defuse situations involving individuals with a suspected mental health matter. Niagara Falls Police are already working with mental health professionals, administrators said, but also argue that those alternative services need to be supported, thus "defunding" makes no sense.
"That shouldn't be considered as taking money and resources away from our police department. Because when you send a social worker in, a mental health professional or a drug counselor in, you do have to maintain the safety of that interaction. And you will need police to be there to make sure that everybody is safe," Wojtaszek said. "So taking it doesn't ultimately take the burden, so to speak. Our law enforcement, it just adds extra resources to those calls so that we can effectively all get out of those calls safely, and get people who need the help to get that help."