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Federal VIPER Task Force helping deter violence in ways local law enforcement can't

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Mike Desmond

Buffalo's violence problems earlier this summer appear to be easing, from what may reflect pressure from the federal Violence Prevention and Elimination Response, or VIPER, Task Force. VIPER is a 60-day effort coordinated through the U.S. Attorney's Office to remove violent gun offenders from the streets to enhance public safety and reduce violent crime in the Buffalo and Rochester regions.

"We have recovered numerous weapons off the street in the past two months," said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn Wednesday. "We have apprehended a lot of drugs off the street. We have apprehended a lot of people who are in possession of weapons. And so I believe that any time that you get guns off the street, that is helpful. And so the VIPER Task Force has been very helpful in that regard."

The feds can do things about street violence police departments ruled by Albany changes in the criminal justice system can't do. For example, federal courts can lock people up without bail or set heavy bail that someone accused of a gun crime can't make. Federal prison sentences can be longer, particularly for a convicted felon.

In New York, recent bail reform has meant most arrests lead to an appearance ticket and the arrested person is back on the street, even for a gun crime charge.

But after the first half of the summer when violent crime skyrocketed, figures have dropped — a lot. A lot of this represents the federal law enforcement structure working with local police, particularly Buffalo Police.

Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said the federal pressure through Viper is definitely having an effect.

"As of a couple of weeks ago, our gun arrests this year are up 57% compared to last year and up around 28% compared to the three-year average. Our police officers and detectives are taking a lot of guns off the streets. There's been a lot of prosecutions that have gone directly to the U.S. Attorney's Office. There's been a lot of enforcement actions at targeted people, at the people we know are the trigger pullers," Gramaglia said.

Flynn said there are way too many guns on the street and agreed the problem is the people pulling the triggers on those guns.

"A gun does not go off by itself. An individual has to pull that gun out of a car, pull it out of their waistband, whatever, point that gun at a human being and pull the trigger and that goes off now," he said. "And now that is what causes the death of another human being."

In a public meeting in July, when violence threatened to break Buffalo's annual record for homicides — 92 dead in 1994 — U.S. Attorney James Kennedy said VIPER's targeted approach could have a large impact.

"Pro-active policing isn't just going out and turning our crime-ridden neighborhoods into minimum security federal prisons. We want to be targeted in the manner in which we are going about our policing, to go after the worst of the worst in terms of the offenders and if we can lock them up," Kennedy said. "I think the encouraging lesson that we have learned is that it's a very small number of individuals that are driving a large amount of the violence."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.