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Caught on tape

     "Caught on video" cable TV shows are peppered with frightening car crashes, tense scuffles between officers and suspects and other choice scenes captured on cameras mounted in police vehicles.

     The cameras are found on more than half the local police and sheriff's patrol vehicles in departments across the country, and they're starting to appear in Western New York.

     The Town of Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and West Seneca departments make regular use of the cameras, the State Police are installing them now and Amherst has older camera systems in some of its patrol vehicles.

     Advocates say the cameras protect officers and civilians alike by preserving a record of their encounters, provide crucial evidence at trials and are useful in training police.

     Cost is an obstacle for local departments -- such as Buffalo, Cheektowaga and the Erie County Sheriff's Office -- that do not use them.

     Are the camera systems worth the investment, as much as $5,000 or more per vehicle? Do you think more area police departments should install them? And have you ever had an encounter with police that you wish had been recorded?
     -- Stephen T. Watson

Only in Buffalo!

In the news business, it's the bad things that grab automatic headlines. Layoffs, unemployment rates and plant closings never fail to grab their part of the daily report.

So what would we find if we went looking for the opposite? Planes that land safely make no headlines, and neither do people happy about how their lives are working out. In today's Spotlight section,  we decided to balance the scales a bit, and explore Western New York's ability to attract and retain people who had options about where to live.

The natural landscape, especially the Niagara River and Great Lakes, forms the foundation for many of their stories, but that's only the beginning. The arts, the cost of living, sports both spectator and participatory, schools, cultural attractions, and a Midwestern neighborliness all figure into their motives.

What about your story? Are there parts of your Western New York life you couldn't envision happening anywhere else?

—Andrew Z. Galarneau

Down on the farm, at City Hall

There are more than 14,000 vacant lots in the city of Buffalo. Just over 5,600 of the lots are owned by the city.

Mark and Janice Stevens have a plan for 27 of these city lots on Wilson Street, just north of Broadway. They want to build a farm on the two-acre plot of land. They want to grow produce that they would eat themselves and also sell in the community.

But the city won't sell them the land because it might be used someday for other development, possibly some Habitat for Humanity houses.

The Stevenses, and their supporters, don't understand why the city would oppose their plan, pointing out the thousands of other empty lots scattered throughout Buffalo.

Would you support urban farming on Buffalo's vacant lots? Or should the city save properties that could be used for development down the road?

— Maki Becker

Read the full story.

Pensions for criminals

On  Nov. 8, 1938, New Yorkers approved the following amendment to the New York State constitution: "After July first, nineteen hundred forty, membership in any pension or retirement system of the state or of a civil division thereof shall be a contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."

Today, voters and lawmakers back then wanted to ensure individual pensions were not tinkered with when the state faced tough economic times.

"They wanted to prevent an Enron situation," one state lawmaker said, referring to the collapse of employee pensions when the company went bankrupt.

But did the lawmakers and voters at the time also want to guarantee public employees and elected officials who violate the public trust — who break laws when carrying out their jobs — can still keep their full state pension?

Because that is what is happening.

A state comptroller who was forced out of his $150,000 state job and convicted of a felony for illegally directing state workers to care for his ailing wife continues collecting a $166,000 public annual pension.

A judge who accepted bribes in exchange for favorable court rulings continues getting an $88,000 annual pension.

A group of crooked Buffalo narcotics detectives, who soiled the reputation of the Buffalo police department, ended up with annual pensions as high as $55,000.

What do you think?

Some say public officials and employees who break the law while working for the public should forfeit at least a part of their pension. Others say these people earned their pensions by working throughout their career, despite the illegal activities they were involved with, usually at the end of their careers. What would the voters and leaders in 1938 have thought?

— Susan Schulman

Read the full story.

Raw emotions at hit-and-run sentencing

   It was a scene that few who attended ever will forget.

   For an hour and a half straight, a State Supreme Court courtroom was the scene of heartfelt pleas and memories of five family members intimately touched by one tragedy, the hit-and-run accident that took the life of 19-year-old Meghan Sorbera last October.

   These recollections and pleas came straight from the heart, from three members of Meghan's family, plus the defendant, John P. Duffy, and his wife. All five struggled with their emotions, some breaking down as they tried to convey how deeply they felt.

   In what had to be a first, even the judge, Justice John L. Michalski, pointed out that he was concerned his emotions might get the most of him.

   For one day, anyway, courtroom procedures and the long arm of the law gave way to raw, deep pain, on a day when there were no winners.

   Just a sad day for everyone.

   -- Gene Warner

Read the full story.

School budgets: Numbing the pain, avoiding the reality

   Why do school districts complain so much about a possible loss in state aid?

   It's because they're so used to getting more that they've gotten out of practice with making due, or even cutting costs, says E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscal think tank, the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

   But school administrators say it's because the cost of items they pay for are going up faster than the rate of inflation, and they have no control over many of them, such as health insurance and pensions, or wage increases that have already been negotiated. And they've used the money to lower class sizes and help students increase academic success, they say.

   This year, federal stimulus money should mean districts won't have to make any painful decisions that would have resulted from less state aid. But you have to think that while they have delayed the pain, it isn't going away for good.

   — Barbara O'Brien

Read the full story.

State budget: any other ideas?

   What were you hoping for in the state's budget?

   That feeling that someone's reaching for your wallet?

   Or did you expect that state leaders would not waste a good crisis and finally take some meaningful steps toward right-sizing the government?

   Collapse a state agency, perhaps?

   Already, the governor is talking about having to address budget issues in the middle of the fiscal year.

   What would you have done? And give us some ideas for follow-up stories.

   -- Matthew Spina

Read the full story.

Putting a stop to red-light runners

   Are supporters of red-light cameras protectors of public safety or money-grabbing bureaucrats?

   Or maybe a hybrid of the two?

   Those backing the cameras insist their main motivation is to prevent injuries and deaths at busy intersections. Yes, they admit, a pilot project being eyed in Buffalo would raise an estimated $2.75 million a year for a city that will desperately need a new revenue stream in the coming year. But they claim their primary goal is to prevent red-light runners from putting the lives of pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists in jeopardy.

   Rubbish, respond opponents.

   "The money grab is coming," South Council Member Michael P. Kearns warned as city lawmakers
narrowly approved a plan to ask the state for permission to launch a pilot project.

   Mayor Byron W. Brown has been advocating the initiative for three years. He said he's convinced installing devices at 50 of Buffalo's busiest intersections will cut down on accidents. He cites numerous studies from other regions to bolster his point.

   Kearns and other opponents point to different studies showing that red-light cameras actually increase the number of rear-end collisions. They worry that a surge in accidents could also drive up insurance costs throughout the area.

   The State Legislature still must approve the pilot project. Even then, the issue would have to return to the Council for a final vote.

   What's your take on red-light cameras?

   -- Brian Meyer

Read the full story.

The tragedy of collegiate binge drinking

   When Arman Partamian died, his blood-alcohol content was 0.55 percent -- just shy of seven times the legal limit for driving.

   Experts say a normal, healthy person who is not an alcoholic would slip into a coma at 0.40 percent; 0.50 percent is considered lethal.

   Before Partamian died, he was seen drinking heavily for three days in a row. On the night before his death, he and two other "pledges" to an unsanctioned fraternity-type social club were seen jumping around a bonfire. They were obviously already intoxicated and were vomiting. But members of the "Pigs" social club were seen forcing the young men to keep drinking full bottles of alcohol.

   Partamian, a 19-year-old from Flushing, was found dead the next morning in an upstairs room of the club. And on Tuesday, three young men were charged with criminally negligent homicide and other crimes.

   There is no question that college students drink, even though they're under 21. There's probably little that can be done to stop that.

   But then there's dangerous binge drinking like the sort Partamian engaged in.

   What can be done to stop such self-destructive behavior?

   Many college try to educate their students about the dangers.

   Some institutions have suggested lowering the drinking age to take away the mystique of underage drinking.

   Livingston County District Attorney Thomas E. Moran is considering going after fraternity parties where unlimited alcohol is served for $5 per cup for tax evasion.

   Will any of this work?

   Do you have any suggestions?

   -- Maki Becker

Read the full story.

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