Neighbors on Buffalo’s West Side are praising the work done by their community police officer in the D-district while also expressing a great deal of frustration about what they call the "bureaucracy" between police agencies that prevented faster action.
“They put in a lot of leg work of not only responding to our calls but incorporating other agencies that they work with and helping us solve this problem,” said Andrew Borchik.
He lives on Hoyt Street. A mixed bag of homeowners, renters, and families.
About two years ago, people who live here got a new, unwelcome neighbor.
“The past year, it got really bad and then continued to get worse.”
Neighbors say an older woman owned the house at 333 Hoyt before being forced out by her son and those he brought along with him.
“The older mother was threatened and had to move out of state so she could be with supportive individuals,” said Borchik.
He said his new neighbors have been squatting for the better part of the last year.
"The people living at this address were not paying rent to the owner, they were squatting," he said. "Multiple pleas for help from the homeowner to the City were made in writing to ask the City to remove people from this residence."
“The son who lives here had taken in a new lover who would stand out on the porch in his bathrobe and just yell out to the neighborhood,” added Stephanie Rothenberg, who lives next door to the alleged drug house.
“You could hear them fighting. You could hear sexual acts going on. You started to get a sense that they were definitely doing some kind of drugs as well.”
Other neighbors said their suspicions were soon confirmed.
“There were about 12-15 individuals living in this house and dealing drugs openly on the front porch — soliciting openly to neighbors.”
A delayed raid
The calls to 3-1-1 and 9-1-1 started pouring in, and the Buffalo Police Department said it got heavily involved about four months ago, securing a warrant to search the property after undercover officers went in to make a number of drug buys.
But then — the world came to a halt.
Neighbors like Rothenberg and Borckik said they're not buying that narrative.
"The problem our neighborhood was facing here is that our criminal justice system is broken," said Rothenberg. "The situation dragged on almost a year because of politics and bureaucracy between the different police departments and the court."
The police department expressed empathy for the neighbor's frustration while explaining the issues that prevented sooner action.
“We didn’t have the ability to serve the warrant because we were still getting COVID measures in place,” said Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.
Also, Governor Andrew Cuomo has in place an executive order stopping all evictions.
On top of that, the courts were all closed.
“We got hit with a perfect storm.”
Borckik also puts blame on the court system for how it operated throughout the COVID crisis.
"Housing Court Judge Carney is only reporting to his chambers on Tuesdays to sign paperwork," he alleged. "The amount of backlog he is creating by not being present must be staggering. Judge Carney’s absence contributed to a delay in obtaining a signed order to vacate, thus allowing the apprehended-then-released individuals to return to the property."
In March, the police department's warrant to search the property expired, and it took months to secure a new one. That also angered Borchik.
"From what we know, he [Gramaglia] told our local B-District officers that he was too busy to sign the first warrant, which led to its expiration and the majority of the drug pushers moving on before they could be apprehended."
Gramaglia told 7 Eyewitness News the first warrant was set to be executed just before the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. He said the Department was working to re-adjust to the new measures which included social distancing and securing proper protective equipment. SWAT raids could not take place and that delayed a number of operations for Buffalo Police.
Finally, June 13th, Buffalo Police made the raid. It brought in multiple agencies, including Public Works, to do double-duty.
“As our SWAT team did the entry, our narcotics team did the search and made the arrest. The board-up crew was called in, and they boarded the house up,” said Gramaglia.
Police told us they arrested two males and a female after finding crystal meth and drug paraphernalia coated with crack-cocaine residue. Police did not disclose the amount of drug products found.
After our original story aired and Borchik and Rothenberg expressed frustration with Gramaglia's account of events he responded to 7 Eyewitness News saying, "I understand their frustration. I empathize. I get it. If I was living there I would've wanted something done sooner."
Rothenberg said she talked with officers after they finished searching the home and said it was uninhabitable.
“They were so disgusted. The other night, too, when they had to go back in, these poor guys were like basically taking their clothes off and shaking them out on the street.”
People tell 7 Eyewitness News the home had rats, ticks, flies, and other creatures throughout. Trash was piled up to the windows outside and inside.
Guess who's back?
The relief after the raid didn’t last long — all three arrestees were released with appearance tickets because of bail reform laws in New York State.
“And E-class felony or lower is a mandatory appearance ticket unless it’s domestic-related,” explained Gramaglia.
The home inhabitants were back a few days later — breaking in through a boarded-up basement window and posting a sign out on the front porch that read ‘under new management.’
Many say it was a taunt aimed at police.
Round two: “Officers were called there and located one of the three defendants from before and re-arrested him on drug charges and criminal contempt, and criminal trespass charges.”
Borchik said police found the defendant hiding under a bed.
He was arrested and rereleased with an appearance ticket.
“They’re released on appearance tickets, and when the court opens back up again, they will be arraigned,” said Gramaglia.
Wednesday afternoon, a judge issued an order to vacate and signs were posted on the property's porch.
And here is the kicker: even if the defendants do not show up to court on their original appearance date — a warrant cannot be issued for their arrest.
“The court must send a notification to the defendant who was released on an appearance ticket with the preferred method of contact that was collected — that could be a phone, text, email,” Gramaglia tells the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. “They are to be notified that ‘you missed court and you have a new court date.’ If they miss court on that second date, they then can have a warrant issued if the judge chooses to issue a warrant for their arrest.”
In email correspondence after this story first aired, Rothenberg wanted to make clear she does support bail reform, even if the new cash bail system isn't working perfectly at the moment.
She thinks the blame for this situation should be on the reform needed in the police department.
"...[M]any people with mental health issues end up in jail because they’re not receiving the support they need. If we could redirect resources away from incarceration to social and healthcare services that help prevent addiction, we could prevent situations like this in the first place."
Now, people living on what was once a quiet Hoyt Street said they’re not holding their breath.
Some of the people living in the neighborhood expect their persistent neighbor to be back as soon as Thursday evening.
“They were going to get out, and they’re going to come back,” said Rothenberg.