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Buffalo's new police commissioner taking "prevent offense" approach to gun violence

Posted at 6:31 PM, Mar 18, 2022

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Buffalo's new police commissioner hopes his "prevent offense" strategy of policing will bring down the frequency of shootings that has plagued neighborhoods across the city for the past two years.

"A prevent-defense allows a little bit of yardage, a little bit of yardage," said Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia in his first televised interview since being sworn in. "We don't want to give up yardage because if you give up yardage, you're giving up lives. People are being shot," he said.

Getting gun violence down — and gun-related arrests up — is Gramaglia's top priority. The 25-year police veteran wants to interrupt the criminal activity before it results in shots fired or a life lost.

"We are strategically putting them on directed patrols in the right places, what we believe to be the right places at the right time to interrupt what might happen," said Gramaglia.

There were 293 shootings in 2020, according to police data, marking an 84 percent increase over the year before. In 2021, there were 298 shootings. Over a five year average, homicides are up 10 percent.

"Our detectives have been inundated with shootings over the last two years. They keep coming, they keep coming," said Gramaglia.

Gramaglia points to COVID-19 and bail reform as primary drivers of the rise in violent crime. His crime-fighting strategy, and his 739 officers, must succeed in this new environment.

"We have the city divided up into grids of boxes where we're looking to dial in and put [officers] at different times. If we have a displacement effect where violent crime, or another crime is shifting into another box, we're going to move on that," said Gramaglia.

So far in 2022, the number of shootings are down 38 percent compared to this time last year. The number of people killed by shootings to date is also down by 21 percent.

To get gun violence down, Gramaglia says he needs community buy-in. But collaboration and cooperation is easier said than done in a time when trust in the policing institution has eroded.

"The more of a relationship we build the better it's going to be, the better cooperation we're going to get," said Gramaglia.

There's also the challenge of handling people in a mental health crisis. The department created its Behavioral Health Team (BHT) in October 2020. Gramaglia says the program has seen great success. However, a year and a half after its creation, the team still only works regular business hours.

There have been questions about why the BHT does not work overnight. Most recently, in the early hours of March 14th on Hertel Avenue, police shot a man who was known to the BHT. They were not there that night to help deescalate the situation. Gramaglia insists they would not have been effective in that situation.

When asked if he would expand the BHT, Gramaglia said he is looking at various options, including funding from the American Rescue Plan.