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City of Buffalo
218 City Hall
OPERATION: SAVE OUR STREETS' SOS TASK FORCE
Weed and Seed is an initiative designed to reclaim and rejuvenate the City of Buffalo's embattled neighborhoods and communities. Weed and Seed uses a neighborhood-focused, two-part strategy to control violent crime and to provide social and economic support to communities where high crime rates and social ills are prevalent. The initiative first removes or "weeds" violent criminals and drug dealers from the neighborhoods. Second, the initiative prevents a re-infestation of criminal activity by T'seeding'1 the neighborhoods with public and private services, community-based policing, and incentives for new businesses. Weed and Seed is founded on the premise that community organizations, social service providers, and criminal justice agencies must work together with community residents in the City of Buffalo to regain control and revitalize crime-ridden and drug plagued neighborhoods.
The most prevalent problem plaguing inner city neighborhoods in the latter half of the twentieth century is the proliferation of drugs and properties devoted specifically to the illegal storage, trafficking and marketing of illegal narcotics. The City of Buffalo is no different from other urban areas and has been plagued by this devastating criminal activity. While everyone realizes that drug free communities will only become a reality through a combination of educating our children about the dangers of drugs, rebuilding our family structure and strong active community involvement, the immediate problem of "drug dens" has to be addressed and eventually eradicated. The existence of these "drug dens" not only brings drugs and the criminal element into a neighborhood, but also creates a downward spiral of the quality of life and paralyzes the residents of the community.
In the late 1980's, the Department of Justice was not forfeiting real property that had minimal value due to the problems encountered in disposing of such properties and the economic loss brought to the Assets Forfeiture Fund. In 1992, realizing that drug properties were not becoming subject to forfeiture, OPERATION: SAVE OUR STREETS (SOS) was born. The City of Buffalo together with the United States Government embarked on an agreement to work together by utilizing the federal forfeiture laws which targeted real property in the City that had primarily been the sites of numerous illegal narcotics sales and used to facilitate such illegal activity. The agreement provided that after forfeiture, the City would accept these properties from the Federal authorities under the auspices of the Weed and Seed Initiative, allowing the City to choose a wide range of program oriented missions to reclaim the property and to place it back into productive use in the community. Numerous properties have been successfully forfeited and turned over to the City under this program and will continue to be done.
However, in order to provide a more comprehensive program, the City of Buffalo, County of Erie and the United States now seek to expand the original OPERATION: SAVE OUR STREETS (SOS) Program and take the bold step of reclaiming our neighborhoods for our law abiding citizens. Due in part to the sheer numbers of properties that qualify under SOS and the minimal resources available to address the problem, it is clear that an expanded approach is needed to tackle the problem from all avenues, not just through forfeiture.
In the Spring of 1997, a unique collaboration began between various departments of the City of Buffalo, law enforcement personnel and various agencies on the local, county, state and federal levels (hereinafter the Task Force) . The Task Force recognizes that non-traditional techniques of law enforcement must be used to supplement traditional investigative and arrest methods. The use of the federal forfeiture laws would still be available, but only as an alternative procedure, when other solutions have been attempted and failed. The Task Force's mission is to terminate the drug activity, and treat the buildings with a coordinated approach, including bringing properties into compliance with City and County building and health codes, providing information to Social Service and law enforcement agencies of individuals who fall under their jurisdiction, attempting to work solutions through the owners of the real property and/or seeking legal remedies of nuisance abatements, bawdy house legislation or ultimately forfeiture, if these actions fail to achieve these goals. A quick response time is essential, not only for police, but also for all participants of the Task Force. Ultimately, the Task Force and SOS's goal is to return these properties to the law abiding citizens, homeowners and tenants to assist them in building a better neighborhood.
Using a coordinated approach between and among the members of the Task Force as denoted below, each agency or department will be responsible for a particular problem facing the individual property. For example, the Narcotics division will continue to focus upon illegal drug trafficking using the criminal justice system to bring the wrongdoers to justice, while at the same time working with the city's building inspectors and County Health department, notifying those departments of possible violations. Those departments will send a response team to enforce their respective ordinances and to insure that the owners and tenants of the property are properly made accountable for the violations. The Task Force will also notify the Department of Social Services, Probation and Parole when and if they determine that an individual residing at a specific targeted property may fall under those departments' jurisdiction and, if so, whether any of their respective programs' regulations have been violated. Through a registry into a central data bank, if a subject property becomes a repeat offender, the City Law Department will consider legal action in the way of Nuisance Abatement, Bawdy House Laws or the like. Finally, if these types of remedial actions still fail to bring the real property in conformance with the neighborhood goals and standards, the property will be considered for federal forfeiture litigation by the United States. If the property is forfeited, the parameters of the original SOS agreement will be implemented The Buffalo Police Department as a participant of the Task force will continue to provide letters to the owners of real property that is the location for drug activity. It is also anticipated that the Task Force, in addition to responding to drug house complaints, can also make the appropriate referrals to address the myriad of other problems facing the neighborhoods, such as various other illegal activities, abandoned vehicles, trash and debris, excessive noise, and parking complaints.
The Task Force will initially meet on a monthly schedule and will focus upon selective "drug dens' 1 in the City, (hereinafter referred to as the "Dirty Dozen"), as recommended by the Buffalo Police Department. The participants recognize that the City of Buffalo is vital to all facets of the Western New York community, and the City must survive in order for the entire community to thrive. Each agency or department participating in this Task Force pledges to dedicate sufficient resources to make this project viable. Additional funding will be explored at future dates. Once this program is operating, it is envisioned that eventually the SOS Task Force will reach out to the private sector to include private industry, landlord associations, Weed & Seed component community organizations such as 'Community School 53' and other associations such as Habitat for Humanity, to continue a coordinated team approach to this problem.
At the same time, many of these properties are likely to be in deteriorating condition, which will, therefore, necessitate the involvement of the Department of Community Development. In either case, both Departments will have a central role to play.
However, that is not to say that BPD or Inspections will be the primary or only problem solvers. In fact, the primary problem solver will be the agency that has the most effective means of addressing some of the other problems
This recognizes the fact that, although such properties may have a drug connection, law enforcement intervention alone is not always an adequate remedy. At best, the police can merely arrest the "bad guys". However, only in those circumstances where the property is owned by the drug dealer or a complicit landlord, can officials seek federal forfeiture action against the property. Otherwise, such properties frequently remain in the hands of revolving drug traffickers and/or become "untouchables" that law-abiding citizens consciously avoid. Thus1 even when successful arrests are made, the properties can still constitute a social and physical blight in the neighborhood. The purpose behind having a multi-agency approach is that it attempts to use other presenting problems as a catalyst for other agency action and effective interdiction
However, because the Buffalo Police Department and the Department of Community Development will usually be the first or second points of contact, it makes sense that one or the other of those Departments act as the liaison to the other participating agencies.
The process would begin with the BPD producing a "Dirty Dozen" list of problem properties. At this initial identification stage, it will be necessary to produce as detailed a profile as possible of each property; its physical condition; the activities associated with it; and the persons, including minors, living there. Beyond merely documenting the suspected drug problems, the profile would be specifically prepared with an eye toward getting the other agency players involved
For example, if the house is in a state of physical deterioration, then the Department of Housing Inspections could become involved; if children are present at an active drug trafficking site, then Erie County Child Protective Services might become involved; if parolees and/or probationers are observed at the site, then the appropriate state and county agencies might become involved. In other words, the profile should be as detailed as possible in order to identify an agency specific involvement. It is recognized, however, that a preliminary police list might not be capable of providing as much detail as may ultimately be necessary
After the BPD has produced a raw list with as much profile information as possible, the Task Force Coordinator would fine tune the list. That is, he/she would check property records to find out the name of the owner, the mortgagee, the tax status, as well as check court and other records to determine if there are active cases pending against the properties, or the subjects associated with it. Perhaps, at this stage, the Task Force Coordinator may generate a letter to the landlord advising of the problems and demanding that remedial actions be taken. This letter would be in addition to the notifications already being sent by the BPD alerting the owner to the drug problem on his property
Next, after fine tuning the list and gathering as much of this preliminary data as possible, the Task Force Coordinator would distribute the list (and data) to the participating agencies. The Coordinator can then choose to make a recommendation as to a course of action. That is, based upon the property profile and the presenting problem(s), he/she might suggest the agency most appropriate to address the presenting problems.
Following circulation of the list, two things would happen. First, each agency would search their own data bases in order to determine whether the property, or the subjects trafficking and/or residing thereat provide some "hook" for them to become involved. This secondary data gathering process would help to flesh out the preliminary profile that the BPD and Task Force Coordinator have already begun to develop.
Second, the Coordinator would note that a regularly scheduled monthly meeting would follow dissemination of the list. The purpose of the meeting would be to discuss the properties and work out short and, possibly, long term strategies for attacking each one. Based on input from the participating agencies, the Task Force Coordinator would be responsible for helping to shape a consensus as to the best method for attacking each problem property. A brief written Action Plan would be produced detailing the "hook" problem and the agency or agencies best suited to address it.
An option that the project coordinator could initiate would be to ask the owner of the property to appear before a subcommittee of the task force for the purposes of discussing the problems and attempting to arrive at a plan of action that the owner could take without any formal governmental action. Such meetings can be scheduled on a bi-monthly basis with a number of property owners. If the property owner refuses to attend such meeting or take action that in the task force's perception is reasonable and appropriate, than the original action plan can be implemented.
Following the development of the Action Plan, the assigned agency(s) would implement the plan. The agency would provide a written report detailing the action it has taken and indicating whether and what additional follow-up activity is required. A portion of the next SOS Task Force meeting would be specifically devoted to follow-up discussion as to whether an acceptable resolution of the problem property has been brought about or is in progress. If additional follow-up and intervention by other agencies is required, it may then be recommended. The Task Force would continue its focused attention on the property until the problem is resolved.
When a problem property has been satisfactorily addressed, the Task Force would remove the property from the "Dirty Dozen" list which would be required for every property that appears on the list. In this way, a property could not linger on the list without corrective action of some kind being implemented. The Task Force would also decide on an appropriate period of time for a property to remain on the list. The Task Force would work from the assumption that every property that makes its way onto the list must be formally closed-out on the list and would adopt objective criteria to be applied in so doing.
In the event that a successful resolution cannot be achieved - which should be the exception rather than the rule - the property would be removed from the "Dirty Dozen" list and placed on a "Recommended for Litigation" list and referred to the United States Attorney's Office and/or the Buffalo Corporation Counsel's Office. The purpose of such a referral would be to evaluate whether the property is eligible for federal forfeiture action, or invocation of the Bawdy House or Nuisance Abatement laws.
Certain key agencies in the Task Force would have a two pronged involvement. In addition to actively participating in the Task Force at its meetings and assisting in the development and implementation of Action Plans, the City Department of Community Development, through the Division of Inspections and the County Department of Social Services would identify individuals in their respective departments who would, when requested, be available to accompany BPD officers during, or after, the execution of Search Warrants. Since, for example, execution of a search warrant may provide a timely moment for identifying problems that are exigent in nature, such as minor children being present at a drug trafficking site1 the availability of key agency personnel from the Department of Social Services would permit immediate problem solving activities to begin. The idea is to bring key agencies into play immediately and not give the drug traffickers any comfort zones whatsoever.
To assist the Buffalo Police Department in their mission and essential work to the Task Force, an additional report technician position will be established with the Department. This report technician position will be assigned to the Vice and Narcotics Division under the leadership of Captain Mark Morgan. The report technician, in addition to assisting the Detectives in the Narcotics squad with their everyday duties, he/she will also be responsible for identifying those properties that are determined to be candidates for referral to the task force and to obtain all relevant documentation and records substantiating the property's illegal use Specific S.O.S. Task Force duties will include the following:
Drug activity in a community has a cost beyond mere dollars. More significantly is the resultant loss of safety and increased fear that residents face when living near these "drug dens". In terms of private cost, the loss in value of the homes in areas near these drug houses is often significant. This has a negative effect on homeowners, banks and other lending institutions and the City.
Quantifying public sector costs is difficult. If drug houses proliferate in a city because there is no mechanism to deal with the problem, the physical, social and economic costs can be enormous. Declining property values reduce revenue for cities and homeowners begin to move away, thus de-stabilizing neighborhoods. Vacant homes drain city revenues because of the increased need for city services, not to mention also serving as invitations to criminals Often buildings are foreclosed costing the city and/or lending institution thousands of dollars.
The Task Force recognizes that not only will a coordinated approach work to change neighborhoods, but that it is also cost effective. The Task Force can approach the owners, banks and mortgage companies, when appropriate, to get them involved in an attempt to prevent losses on their buildings. The Task Force will result in savings to law enforcement by creating a permanent coordinated mechanism to respond to and close a drug house. For every drug house closed, patrol officers and narcotics detectives are able to concentrate their time on other duties. Other public agencies will also see cost savings as the result of a quick closure of these drug houses.
It is also anticipated that the targeting of drug houses in a coordinated fashion will result in either having the owner return the property to a standard acceptable to the community or if he/she fails to do so, ultimately allowing the property to be renovated and sold to a new owner who will pay off back taxes and keep his property in proper condition. By placing 10 modest properties per year back on the tax rolls, the City of Buffalo could easily realize $30,000 per year.
© 2001-2011 City of Buffalo
Photos by Angel Art LTP, compliments of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau. Additional photos by Adrian Roselli, compliments of Algonquin Studios