Profile No. 3

Buffalo Weed and Seed Initiative -- Buffalo, NY

Program Type or Federal Program Source:
A program of comprehensive gun violence reduction strategies; Executive Office for Weed and Seed.

Program Goal:
To reduce crime, to improve economic and housing development.

Specific Groups Targeted by the Strategy:
Violent perpetrators.

Geographical Area Targeted by the Strategy:
Weed and Seed area in Buffalo, NY.

Evaluated by:
Internal data collection.

Contact Information:
Oswaldo Mestre
Director of Weed and Seed
Department of Community Development
City Hall, Room 920
Buffalo, NY 14202
Phone: 716­851­4281

Years of Operation:

By 1994, the dramatically increasing violent crime rate that took place throughout the late 1980's and early 1990's had earned the city of Buffalo, NY, a reputation as one of the highest homicide centers in the country for a population base of its size. A declining infrastructure and subsequent rise in drug- and gang-related violence contributed to the city's significant crime problems. Since 1954, Buffalo has witnessed a population decrease from approximately 600,000 to 328,000 residents, leaving many communities with a proliferation of abandoned houses that would eventually become "drug dens" supporting the storage, trafficking, and marketing of illegal narcotics. Similar to many other urban centers, gun- and gang-related violence in the city are intricately tied to the drug trade. The rise in the number of these drug dens not only brought drugs and criminal elements into many Buffalo neighborhoods, but also created a downward spiral in the quality of life for residents, paralyzing many in fear.

Violent crimes reached their peak in Buffalo in 1994. Between 1993 and 1994, homicides in the city increased 19 percent (from 79 to 94). Since 1994, Buffalo has followed the national trend of steadily decreasing violent crime. Violent crime decreased 38 percent between 1993 and 1997 (from 6,041 to 4,052). Between 1994 and 1997, Part II weapons offenses witnessed a 12-percent decrease (from 430 to 384). Similarly, a review of gun-related calls for service demonstrates an overall decline in gun activity in Buffalo: calls about assault with a deadly weapon declined 33 percent between 1994 and 1997 (from 1,146 to 892), reports of a subject with a gun declined 38 percent (from 3,149 to 1,972), and reports of shots fired declined 26 percent (from 2,515 to 1,860). One of the major factors contributing to this decrease in Buffalo was the targeting of key gangs in the high-crime areas of the city, resulting in the removal of four of the most violent groups.

Recognizing that its declining crime rates could not be sustained without a coordinated approach that targets serious offenders in its neighborhoods while the areas are being revitalized and restored through economic and housing development activities, the city applied for and received a U.S. Department of Justice Weed and Seed grant, which was initiated in April 1997. Underlying Buffalo's Weed and Seed strategies are two assumptions:

  • Neighborhood residents must directly participate in recommending solutions to reduce and prevent crime and to redevelop their neighborhoods.

  • The Buffalo Police Department will work with the City of Buffalo Community Development Department, schools, business associations, block clubs, social service agencies, and other community-based organizations in the targeted areas to implement a coordinated Weed and Seed program.

The Buffalo Weed and Seed program targets the core of the inner city, encompassing portions of four councilmatic districts in one of the city's most socioeconomically distressed areas. The target area comprises 36,231 residents, representing 11 percent of the city population, of whom 95 percent are African-American. In addition to consistently being a major source of the city's homicides and other violent crimes (in 1995, there were 17 homicides in the area -- more than 25 percent of the citywide total of 62), the target area also has the city's highest rates of teenage pregnancy, unemployment, and infant mortality.

Comprehensiveness and integration of the strategies

The Buffalo Weed and Seed program represents a comprehensive strategy covering enforcement-based prevention and intervention strategies. The Buffalo Police Department and Community Development Office have sought ways to involve community feedback and partnership at all levels of the program, although it was primarily driven by law enforcement in its first year.

The underlying philosophy of the program is that while law enforcement activities are necessary to rid communities of criminal aspects, sustainable change will occur only if a stable community infrastructure is built at the same time. To this end, the seeding activities involve a strong community capacity-building element that provides residents with the necessary skills to be informed participants in both law enforcement and community restoration activities.

Although there is a formal structure to the program consisting of a Steering Committee, a Weed Subcommittee, and a Seed Subcommittee, overall coordination remains informal but effective. Collaboration occurs across all levels of government with each agency/organization knowing whom to contact to accomplish the Weed and Seed objectives.

Enforcement-based strategies: The Weed component

The Buffalo Police Department developed a coordinated approach to gun suppression that involves collaboration across Federal, State, and local levels. In addition to a gun detail that engages in targeted activities against gun-involved offenders and locations, the U.S. Attorney's Office works with local prosecutors to ensure that a zero tolerance policy is carried through all levels of the criminal justice system.

Gun Abatement Program

At the core of the Weed component is the Gun Abatement Program, which is designed to reduce the availability of guns on the streets by targeting drug and weapon dealers and high-crime locations. A gun hotline was developed for citizens to report gun locations or offenders, but it had fewer calls than expected. Officers of the precinct went door-to-door to area residents, businesses, and churches to hand out material related to the program including magnetized cards and coffee mugs with the hotline number on them. Although the hotline itself did not produce many tips, a surprising benefit of the door-to-door interviewing was the confiscation of 30 weapons by the officers canvassing the neighborhood. These guns were retrieved by parental consent to search children's bedrooms and attics or basements where the children hang out with their friends. Because the police department's focus is on both arrests and removing guns from circulation, informants whom the officers met on the streets also relinquished several guns. These activities also served as a public relations tool by promoting the efforts of the department and sending a message to potential violators.

The identification and targeting of drug dealers also is a central strategy of the gun abatement strategy. Operating on the assumption that wherever gangs or drug dealers congregate, a gun is nearby, gun abatement officers searched abandoned houses in these locations and confiscated 47 weapons, more than 3,300 rounds of ammunition, and 2 bulletproof vests. Drug dealers were stopped, and on several occasions this tactic resulted in arrests for gun possession. Once any individual is arrested for weapons possession, his or her mug shot is put on display in the precinct to allow other officers to become familiar with him or her. Coordinated drug raids with several Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies resulted in the seizure of 30 additional weapons. To date, a total of 262 weapons have been confiscated as a result of these gun abatement program activities.

Every gun seized by officers is subjected to a point-of-origin trace by an ATF special agent, who works closely with both the gun abatement officers and Federal prosecutors. These traces have resulted in 15 criminal investigations and identification of 2 major gun traffickers. Gun abatement officers refer trace data to ATF for further investigation and to the lieutenant in charge of the Gun Abatement Program to enhance the development of targeted strategies.

Collaboration with the district attorney's office

The appointment of a special prosecutor to work specifically with the gun abatement officers is an important complement to the street-based enforcement strategies. Having one prosecutor concentrate on gun-related offenses develops a skill base and resources in the manner that is common for many other crimes (e.g., sexual assault prosecutor and domestic violence prosecutor). Six convictions have been achieved in the last year. Collaboration with the district attorney's office also has included training gun abatement officers on gun frisks, profiling gun carriers on the streets, teaching witnesses to articulate suspicions in court, and promoting safety on the street.

Operation Save Our Streets

Save Our Streets, a program initiated in 1993, recently has been revitalized and incorporated into the Weed and Seed Program through the hiring of a coordinator. Fifteen agencies are a part of the Save Our Streets Task Force, including members from the Narcotics Division of the Buffalo Police Department, City Hall's Department of Community Development, the Mayor's Task Force on Housing, the District Attorney's Office, Erie County Probation Department, Erie County Department of Social Services, New York State Division of Parole, United States Marshals Service, and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The task force targets houses in the Weed and Seed area suspected of involvement in drug use and facilitating criminal activity. Using Federal asset forfeiture laws to gain access to a property, each agency or department on the task force is responsible for a particular problem facing the individual property. A response team is set up for each agency to enforce its respective ordinances and to ensure that the owner and tenants of the property are properly held accountable for violations. Where problems persist, the city chooses from a wide range of program-oriented missions to reclaim the property and to place it back into productive use in the community. Many properties have been demolished and turned into community gardens and parks.

Flex Unit: Zero tolerance enforcement

The Buffalo Police Department also has hired 20 officers under the COPS Distressed Neighborhood Program and has initiated a "Flex Unit" in an economically distressed, high-crime community close to the Weed and Seed target area. The Flex Unit ultimately will be deployed in target areas throughout the city. Based on traditional crime analysis techniques (e.g., mapping data of robberies, murders, and gangs) and a review of the availability of community assets (e.g., community leadership and community block clubs), the target area was selected and broken down into low-, medium-, and high-risk areas. An essential ingredient of target area selection was the presence of a hub area, such as a park or community house, which could serve as the physical, community locus for the project. The Flex Unit seeks to saturate the area with a zero tolerance policy that targets habitual offenders, eliminates crack and vacant houses, and works with the community to improve the quality of life. The Unit focuses its efforts in the low-risk area, before gradually moving into the designated medium- and high-risk areas. Activities are continued in the target area until both council members and the community indicate that enough of an infrastructure has been established to sustain outcomes in the absence of the Unit. Within the first 2 months of the program, the Flex Unit had made a total of 105 arrests, enforced 43 city ordinances, and served 19 warrants.

Community mobilization and restoration: The link between the Weed and Seed components

A central focus of the Weed and Seed program involves the mobilization of community input and support to develop specific strategies and activities. Although the first-year Weed efforts were primarily driven by law enforcement, planning is well underway to make community residents a key ingredient in both the Weed and Seed components of the program. Plans include working with existing block clubs, working to establish community groups where none currently exist, and building on the Buffalo Police Department's community policing stations located throughout the city.

The Weed and Seed coordinator works directly with a coalition of block clubs that involves community leaders from the target area. By collaborating with this group, the Weed and Seed program receives tips and information that contribute to enforcement activities. Year 2 objectives include collaborating with the coalition in the development of an overall strategic plan to enhance the quality of life in the target area, including the identification of new Seed strategies.

Training will be provided to police officers and community groups within the target area in group facilitation methods, resource identification, and problem solving using the Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment model. To complement its work with the block clubs, the Weed and Seed program also has developed junior block clubs in the target area, which may ultimately be linked to the Youth Police Academy offered by the BPD's Citizen Advisory Group.

Community police stations

Weed and Seed community mobilization activities are integrated with the Buffalo Police Department's efforts to implement community policing throughout the city. Community policing stations have been or will be established in each of the city's districts, staffed by a combination of VISTA volunteer workers and citizens committed to improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods. The Buffalo Police Department developed the V.I.A.B.L.E. (Volunteers Assisting in Buffalo Law Enforcement) program to train residents in community policing and develop the necessary skills to volunteer at the community policing stations. The stations enable residents to bring their quality-of-life concerns to community police officers and to provide tips and other information to the police department. The stations also serve as meeting places for community groups and block clubs throughout the city. The Weed and Seed coordinator uses these resources to enhance community input into Weed and Seed.

Neighborhood improvement

Through the formation of the Mayor's Impact Team (MIT), the city has created a coordinated force involving all city departments to clean up Buffalo's neglected neighborhoods and to encourage residents to take an active role in maintaining the integrity of their neighborhoods by expanding existing block clubs or forming new clubs where none exist. In response to input received from block club and council members, the MIT goes into neighborhoods and takes care of a variety of quality-of-life issues by removing debris produced by illegal dumping, boarding up abandoned properties, carrying out building inspections, enforcing codes, landscaping, and addressing any other necessary issues. Of particular interest, much of the work carried out by the MIT is done by people required to perform community service (e.g., probationers and people cited for DWI). Members of the MIT work closely with the Operation Save Our Streets program to combat the existence of abandoned houses throughout the city.

Resident street patrols

Weed and Seed also collaborates with a local chapter of the national organization MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder). MAD DADS is currently training volunteers to participate effectively in street patrols within the Weed and Seed target area. The street patrols are viewed as an instrument for providing a positive presence of community residents on the street as a complement to the Weed and Seed program. In addition to the street patrols, MAD DADS offers mentoring and surrogate father support programs to those youth they contact on the street. The Masten Block Club Coalition also has developed a Neighborhood Crime Watch program to develop street patrols on particular blocks within the target area.

Buffalo has witnessed a positive change in police-community relations, through both the above strategies and other police-community partnerships across the city, such as the Neighborhood Initiatives (police-community partnerships) that the department has initiated in four neighborhoods in addition to the Weed and Seed target area.

High-risk youth intervention and prevention activities: The Seed component

The Seed Subcommittee of the Weed and Seed program works through block clubs to organize and support the efforts of each block club in the target area, offer training programs for the block clubs within the target area, and regularly meet with the three Safe Haven sites to develop integrated strategies.

Safe Haven

The focal point of the Seed component is its Safe Haven program, with three Safe Haven sites now operating in the three corners of the target area boundaries. Each Safe Haven offers a range of services to the target area including job skills training, family services referrals, adult literacy programs, tutoring, firearm prevention education, and recreational programming. At all three Safe Haven sites, parents are encouraged to participate in the children's educational and recreational activities.

One of the Safe Haven sites is located in a former church that was scheduled for demolition, but was renovated to become the King Urban Life Center. As a part of the Buffalo Board of Education, the site offers state-of-the-art distance learning and multimedia portfolios that not only enhance the parent and child's learning experience, but also expose them to the new advances in technology. In addition to educational programs for youth within the target area, the King Urban Life Center offers adult literacy programs to develop the skills of area parents.

Another Safe Haven site, located in a community school in the heart of the target area, offers extended hours and provides a meeting area for youth, adult residents, block clubs, and local community groups. A wide variety of educational and recreational programming is offered at the site. In addition, it offers a Family Support Center designed to link comprehensive community-based services to the student population and their families. Providers linked to the Center through referrals include Child and Family Services, Child and Adolescent Treatment Services, the Erie County Department of Social Services, a community health care center, and the Greater Buffalo Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. Although the school once suffered from the violence and drug problems characteristic of many urban centers, it has become a truly safe space for community youth and adults. The community school reports no significant problems with weapons violations or drug and gang activity.

Alternatives for youthful offenders

The Buffalo Police Department also works with the First Time/Last Time program, an alternative to incarceration for first-time youth offenders throughout Erie County. All youth entering the program receive intake counseling and are then referred to one of numerous resource agencies in the area participating in the program. Throughout its first year of operation, the program served 493 youth, with 96 drug/alcohol referrals, 220 education referrals, 79 employment referrals, 13 residential referrals, 25 mental health referrals, 94 community service placements, and 18 other referrals.

Truancy abatement

The attendance improvement model (AIM) involves a collaboration between Buffalo police officers and the schools to bring truant youth back into the school system. Officers work with parents and educators to deal with individuals who are not reporting to school. AIM officers also work with students who have been identified as at risk in areas such as conflict management, peer disputes, antiviolence training, and trouble-spot monitoring near city schools. To date, 78 truants have been returned to school, 44 home investigations have taken place, 19 adults and 17 juveniles have been arrested, and 64 presentations have been given by AIM officers.

Curfew enforcement

A Curfew Ordinance Enforcement project also has been implemented by the Buffalo Police Department in collaboration with the Erie County Department of Social Services/Child and Family Services and Compass Houses. In its first 50 nights of operation, 471citations were issued, 1,626 noncurfew violations contacts with youth older than 17 were made, and 22 arrests were made. Rather than simply returning youth to problem environments, the Buffalo Police Department referred cases to the Department of Social Services for case management where necessary.

The Weed and Seed program has recently received funding from AmeriCorps to hire 32 youth and young adults to engage in designated seeding projects throughout the target area.

In addition to the above program highlights, a wide variety of seeding activities were implemented in year 1, including those listed below:

  • A book drive benefiting the Erie County Youth Detention Center.

  • The establishment of a community garden on the site of a former drug house across from one of the Safe Havens.

  • The hiring of 30 youth (ages 13 to 17) through the Mayor's Summer Youth Opportunities and Internship program, who were placed with various community-based organizations and area businesses in the target area.

  • Provision of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) programs in area schools.

Impacts of the Buffalo Weed and Seed Initiative

Part I crimes within the target area have decreased 31 percent since 1996, comparing the 9-month period of January to September. Within this total, homicides have decreased 38 percent, rapes have decreased 14 percent, and aggravated assaults have decreased 36 percent. While the target area used to average 15 to 20 shooting deaths per year, only 1 such death has occurred within the first 12 months. The dramatic drop in homicides and aggravated assaults cannot be directly attributed to any of these strategies in isolation, but more likely is the result of the cumulative impact of all these strategies.

In the first 9 months of 1997, Part I crimes within the target area decreased 31 percent compared with the same timeframe in 1996.

Weed and Seed has provided the City of Buffalo an opportunity to show the power of police and the community working together and focusing our efforts toward common problems, and to once again prove the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

-- Rocco J. Diina
Commissioner of Police, Buffalo, NY

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