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Barbara Miller-Williams is not leading by example

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Barbara Miller-Williams is absolutely correct when she says she's playing by the rules in working a boatload of overtime in order to boost her pension benefits. As a Buffalo cop, she is clearly within her rights to do so.
But, as chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature, one could also argue that she is tone deaf.

The taxpaying public is sick and tired of public employees milking the system for every penny they can lay their hands on. In this case, the $84,159 in overtime she's picked up the past three years -- including more than $51K last year -- will boost her annual pension by an estimated $14,000.

When that public employee also happens to be one of their top elected officials, well, I can anticipate what the reaction will be. It won't be pretty.

Add to it this the fact Miller-Williams is putting in only 15 to 20 hours a week as chairwoman.

On one hand, that's a good thing, because the Police Department prohibits officers from working more than 20 hours a week at an outside job.

Then again, do we really want the chairwoman treating her $52,000-a-year position as decidedly part-time gig?

And probably running on fumes part of the time when she's performing her legislative duties. I mean, she's been working an average of 60 hours a week for the past year, year-and-a-half. On top of that, one weekend a month she's off doing her duty as a member of the Army Reserves.

What's left in the tank to perform her legislative duties?

This could be a moot point when Miller-Williams retires from the police department at the end of the month. But it does raise a question as to just how diligent she is in approaching the job.

Moreover, it puts her, and by extension, her colleagues on the Legislature, in a potentially awkward position the next time they ask rank-and-file employees to make contract concessions to save the county money.

Suffice to say, the Legislature's leader has not led by example.


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Too many city streets are not safe

Police at crime scene

I worked my occasional shift Sunday covering the police beat and was reminded anew of how violent the city can be. The happenings of Saturday night and Sunday morning were scarier than what I've seen in some time, and it wasn't confined to the neighborhoods where the mayhem tends to be concentrated.

No, East Side, North Side, it was all around the town. This follows the fatal shooting little more than a week ago at Merge Restaurant, pictured above.

Three episodes this past weekend involved large groups of young men congregating on street corners.

In one instance, someone in a gang of 10 in Ken-Bailey took at shot at a cop who had pulled one of the crew aside for questioning.

In another instance, someone in another group of 10 hanging in Black Rock took at shot at a woman driving down a side street off Hertel Avenue.

In a third episode, a crew of 15 to 17 men went to a house in Northeast Buffalo and ordered someone off their block -- and cut his face to drive home the point.

Elsewhere, someone walking down Niagara Street got shot in the ankle and two stores along Elmwood Avenue were the targets of robbers claiming to have guns.

One bad Saturday night does not make a trend. But the police reports I read confirm what FBI statistics showed the last time they were released, that violent crime is up in the city.

It's little wonder. Too many thugs hanging around street corners, too many guns within easy reach.

Meanwhile, the search to replace H. McCarthy Gipson as police commissioner has yet to begin. Judging by what I read in police reports over the weekend, the search can't start soon enough.


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Putting the brakes to red light cameras

Buffalo is proceeding, albeit more slowly than anticipated, with plans to install red-light cameras at 50 intersections around the city. Meanwhile, the cameras are becoming a fading fad elsewhere around the country, according to a front page report in USA Today and a sidebar story.

Red-light cameras that have been gaining a foothold in many states face a growing public backlash and outright removal.

Motorists are increasingly viewing them as a money-grabbing move by government - Mayor Byron Brown thinks the cameras would provide the city $2.75 million a year, thanks to fines that would start at $50 a pop.

The pace of installations has slowed, however. Seven state legislatures have banned their use, voters have approved referendums to stop their deployment in three cities, and numerous lawsuits have been filed in Florida challenging their legality.

It's not just critics who are unhappy. One state lawmaker in Illinois who had championed the cameras is now contemplating legislation to curtail their use, saying they have not delivered as promised.

Reported USA Today:

"They were sold to us in a different manner than what they're being used for," says state Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat. "The municipalities have put them in areas where they're just to make revenue."

He says that since 2006, crashes have increased at half the intersections in Illinois that have cameras, stayed the same at 25% and decreased at 25%.

Here in Buffalo, Brown has obtained the necessary approvals from the state and Common Council. But his administration is six months behind its original schedule to solicit requests for proposals for a system and operator, and the Council still needs to approve enabling legislation.

Might the cooling of interest elsewhere prompt second thoughts?


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Outrages in the fine print

Two things caught my eye reading the paper over the weekend.

First, in a disturbing story detailing how 13 women have died at the hands of their current or former male partners since November, came this passage.

Many advocates contend that law enforcement agencies need to devote more resources and training to help curb the upward spiral of violence.

Several noted that the Buffalo Police Department in recent years has dramatically scaled back the number of detectives assigned to handling domestic violence cases and pulled its investigators from the Family Justice Center, a one-stop agency devoted to linking victims with assistance and resources.

I find the retreat by the Buffalo police department especially troubling given what I read in crime incident reports when I work the police beat once every three or four weeks. As I noted in a blog past last week, there are a lot of assaults against women by men who are violating orders of protection.

Twice in the past couple of months I read reports where men kicked pregnant women in the stomach.

Domestic violence is by no means limited to the city, but there sure is a lot of it occurring in Buffalo. I wonder what reasoning the police brass has in pulling back.

I''ll bet that the law enforcement community throughout Western New York, including judges, don't come down real hard on the vast majority of men who violate orders of protection. It looks like in Buffalo they may hardly be trying. 

Anyone out there have any stats or insights?

The other items that caught my eye involved the deal Gov. David Paterson struck late last week with two of the large state employee unions.The deal: buyouts for 4,500 instead of layoffs for 8,700, and changes in the pension system.

Here's a nugget that jumped out at me:

The big winners of the day were the two public employee unions. CSEA President Danny Donohue, who vowed his members would never concede to contract givebacks, said he also received a pledge from Paterson that layoffs will be off the table for two years.

Let me get this straight: The state is already facing a $5 billion deficit for the budget year that started in April, and the Guv has ruled out layoffs for this year and next? What a negotiator.

Of course, this is the same guy who thought he struck a good deal with Yahoo! by giving the company hydropower discounts worth $810,000 per $50,000 job created, and then felt it wasn't his place to ask the company to place its server farm any closer to the populous than the Pembroke exit off the Thruway.

These crime numbers don't lie

Violent crime in Buffalo jumped 6.5 percent last year, according to new stats released by the FBI. The increase, which contrasts with a nationwide decline of 2.5 percent, is largely explained by an increase in aggravated assaults.

I cover the  police beat one day every three or four weeks, which partly involves reviewing arrest and crime incident reports, and I am not the least bit surprised by the numbers. There is a lot of ugly behavior in the streets of this city, as well as behind closed doors, particularly on the East Side and Lower West Side.

I read a lot of reports involving (1) brutal beatings in the streets and (2) men violating orders of protection to attack estranged wives, former wives and ex-girlfriends. The latter happens so frequently that I question if the courts take seriously enough violations of orders of protection.

News that violent crime is up puts to lie one of Mayor Byron Brown's main campaign themes -- that crime is down and the city is safer under his watch. Tell that to Javon Jackson's grieving mother.

Yes, the overall crime rate has dipped 2.1 percent, when property and other non-violent crimes are factored in.

But the measure of a city's safety is largely based on personal safety, which begins with freedom from fear of rape, assault and other street-level mayhem. And in this regard, Buffalo's numbers are headed in the wrong direction. Aggravated assaults increased 13 percent from 2007 to 2008, while rapes were up 6 percent.

On a related front, the University Heights Answer Lady has two very interesting posts on crime stats  here  and here. Well worth the read. I like the Answer Lady's spunk.

Buffalo reporting crime info -- sort of

After a long wait, Buffalo police are now posting crime information online. However, in keeping with the department's recent history of trying to limit the public's right to know what is going on in the city's neighborhoods, the department is putting up only the most skeletal of information.

All you'll find out, on a limited number of crimes, is the block the crime occurred on and the most general of descriptions of the crime, usually a word or two like "theft" or "assault."

The police have the ability to provide citizens much more useful information while still protecting legitimate privacy rights. But, as I have reported over the course of the past year, the department since Mayor Bryon Brown took office has been making less, not more crime information available to the press, and therefore, the public.

Going online gives the mayor and his department a reason to say they're providing more info, and in one sense, that's true. But the police could be providing much more.

Red light? What red light?

So, I'm working a week ago Sunday, driving down Washington Street from the News office to Police HQ.

At the intersection of Seneca Street, a Buffalo squad car cruises through a red light, the officer behind the wheel talking on a phone.

I drive a few blocks up, approaching Chippewa Street, and the same thing happens.

I'm serious. Really.

So, I have a question for Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council, who are intent on posting cameras around the city to catch drivers running red lights.

Will the rules apply to the cops?

'Cause if they do, this could cost the city a lot of money.

And if the rules don't apply, will the waivers granted police be a matter of public record?

Cops, bailouts and rock 'n' roll

A little bit of this, a little bit of that for a Wednesday.

The Washington Post reports that banks getting federal bailout money have curtailed their lending more than those who haven't accepted government help.

Reports The Post:

Some of the first banks to get funding, such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, have reported the sharpest drops in lending.

Hey, isn't this supposed to be the other way around?

M&T Bank, the largest locally based lender, fared a little better than the industry as a whole in the final  quarter of last year.

Jonathan Epstein, our banking reporter, tells me that compared with the final quarter or 2007, M&T's average business loans in the same period last year grew 9 percent annualized, while commercial real estate loans rose 2 percent and consumer loans fell by 2 percent.

M&T received $600 million in bailout funds in December. It will be interesting to see what its lending practices look like in the coming months.


My colleague Phil Fairbanks had an eye-opening story the other day about the surging cost of providing health insurance for retired government workers in Western New York. Essentially, the liability has grown to $3.7 billion and local governments and school districts aren't putting away nearly enough money to cover it.

If they were, local budgets would be staggered, especially in Buffalo. If they were keeping pace with their obligations, City Hall and the Board of Education would be socking away $163 million a year. They're only putting aside $62.5 million, however, which tells me the day of reckoning is going to be awfully ugly.

But the way politics operate in this town, those now in office figure the bill won't come due until they're safely retired -- on a cushy state pension, no doubt.

This is how out of control the costs are -- fully funding its liability for providing retirees with insurance would eat up about one of every seven dollars the school district now spends.


Let me get this right. Get held up in your home in the middle of the night by a guy who points a shotgun at your head and you're hard-pressed to get your place fingerprinted, or more than an interview or two with a detective. But let someone send out some nasty e-mails and the police will come storming in like the Army on Normandy beach. At least when the victim is the mayor.

Mike Beebe did a takeout in Sunday's paper which does nothing to alleviate concerns that the "investigation" into the actions of Syaed Ali was a misuse of police powers by an administration that housing activist Aaron Bartley has previously described as suffering from "clinical paranoia."

Reported Mike:

The issue won’t go away in City Hall, where the debate is whether there truly was a concern for the mayor’s security, or if it was just a ham-handed effort to silence a critic of the mayor.

For good reason.

Why did the police haul away belongings that could not have had anything to do with the investigation, including "his mother’s purse, his father’s and brother’s business records, and at least $750 in emergency cash. (Ali) said they also took his personal deodorant, shaving cream and nail clippers."

And why have they not returned anything they took, some three months after the raid? I mean, are the nail clippers considered a potential weapon of mass destruction?

And why did police press Ali for information that could implicate a couple of the mayor's perceived rivals? It wouldn't have anything to do with the intention of one of them to run for mayor this year, would it?

Why are the mayor and his police commissioner hiding behind their flaks?

Why, why, why?

Seems to me these are questions best answered by our new DA, Frank Sedita. His last name is Sedita, not Clark, right?

I mean, there's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.


But they don't fingerprint burglary scenes

We may have the makings of our own little "gate" involving Mayor Byron Brown's possible use of the Buffalo Police Department for political purposes.

Artvoice first broke the story, and has done a follow. There's been followup coverage by The News and commentary by the Buffalo Pundit. In addition, New WNY Politics has done a couple of stories, here and here, but in reading them, keep in mind the site is run by a former sidekick of Joe Illuzzi.

Here's how Artvoice reported the story:

At seven o’clock on the morning of November 7, Syaed Ali and his family were awakened by a team of Buffalo police officers bearing a search warrant.

The warrant, signed by Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah one week earlier, accused Ali of aggravated harassment and empowered police to search his home and seize any and all electronic equipment — computers, discs, cell phones, etc. — that might provide evidence of the charge. Police searched Ali’s home, carted away boxes of seized material, and took him downtown for questioning, without an arrest warrant, without reading him his rights, without allowing him to contact relatives or an attorney.

Two months later, Ali hasn’t been charged and he can’t get his possessions returned. The person that Ali says he was accused of harassing: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

All this supposedly revolves around some nasty e-mails that have circulated about the mayor earlier this year. The Artvoice story goes on to detail some scary stuff, if Ali's attorney is to be believed, and coverage from some of the other media outlets goes further.

For example, Ali told New WNY Politics:

"The officers told my brother that they had an arrest warrant for me charging me with computer fraud and aggravated harassment of the Mayor of Buffalo. Yet, when a family member and later I asked them why they were doing this, two different officers replied, 'Because you made the Mayor really mad!' "

This is potentially explosive stuff and we all need to avoid jumping to conclusions. That said, the words of the mayor's own people are noteworthy, as much for what they don't say as what they do.

Of course, there's the usual, "we don't talk about ongoing investigations," uttered by by Peter Cutler, the mayor's spokesman, and Mike DeGeorge, spokesman for the police.

Cutler, however, passed when given the opportunity by Artvoice to deny that a complaint from the mayor triggered the whole affair.

I found DeGeorge's words particularly interesting.

“It’s my understanding there was no formal complaint [made against Ali] from the mayor’s office."

Hmmm. No "formal" complaint, you say.

DeGeorge continued.

“Police routinely investigate matters involving the mayor. He’s the highest public official in the City of Buffalo, so there will be situations that come up."

So, Mike, what exactly is the "situation?"

"... to comment on specifics could certainly jeopardize not only the investigation, but security issues.”

Of course. Security issues. We should all stop asking questions.

A few other things have caught my eye.

Among them is the judge who signed the search warrant, City Court Judge Craig Hannah, who Brown appointed to the bench 11 days after taking office. The judge and the mayor go way back and Hannah has been a  major campaign contributor.

Then there's the way the police handled the auto accident a few years ago involving the mayor's son. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

This looks like a matter that someone needs to get to the bottom of. How about our new district attorney, Frank Sedita?

Since taking office a few weeks ago, he's been trying to show people he's a different cat than his predecessor, Frank Clark, widely perceived, among other things, as disinterested in the misdeeds of public officials.

Well, Mr. New DA, here's your chance to show the public you're really different than the Human Quote Machine.

I can't close without harkening back to blog posts I wrote on New Year's Eve and back in April about the introduction of police surveillance cameras throughout the city without any rules in place to safeguard against abuses. Some of you readers responded by dismissing such concerns as paranoid.

Well, I stick by those concerns, especially in light of these latest developments. In fact, make that a double.

No reason to celebrate

The headline in today's News reads "New Year's under surveillance: High-tech cameras, police foot patrol seeks to ensure a safe night."

The headline writer would have us believe the surveillance cameras are a good thing.

I would beg to differ.

Buffalo police rolled out their network of 43 surveillance cameras back in April, saying they expected to have about 100 in place by the end of the year. For tonight's festivities downtown, the police will also be using a mobile camera.

I noted in a post back then that they were operating the system without any rules or policies. Police, in essence, can do what they please with the cameras.

But they promise they will be good boys. It's not like they've gone on ticket-writing blitzes or withheld crime information from the public, or anything like that.

Police spokesman Mike DeGeorge said back in April that rules would be forthcoming and I have periodically checked back with him. A policy was drafted months ago and submitted to the corporation counsel's office for review. And there it apparently sits. Inquiries to the Mayor Byron Brown's office on what his law department is doing with the draft policy and the reason for the delay have been met with silence.

Buffalo police aren't real good with low-tech tools like finger-printing. They only dust one of every 10 burglary scenes. We're supposed to have confidence in their use of high-tech tools?

The potential for abuse is more than an abstract one. There's a history of abuse by both police and private security forces, as summarized in this listing and this New York Times story about how police there used their snooping powers to capture a couple's, say we say, "intimate moments." In September, the ACLU filed a lawsuit over New York City's planned use of 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan.

Here in Buffalo, well, yawn. Nothing from the ACLU and the Common Council has a police oversight committee, but its members are not asking any questions, much less demanding action on this matter.

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