NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — Nationally, crime spiked nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is no different in Niagara County.

In a ride along with the Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti, the Sheriff told News 4 that the department is trying to make its presence known in the community for two reasons: to create trust between the deputies and the residents they serve and to send a message to known offenders.

“Our residents expect us to have our red and whites out on the street and keeping them safe,” Sheriff Filicetti said. “That’s what we do.”

In May, there were four shootings in four days. A string of violent crime on May 5 led to one person being shot dead and another shot in the face. On May 2, a victim was shot and killed and another hit in the leg.

Like all crime, gun violence is on the rise across the nation, in New York State and in Niagara County. The FBI reports a 5% increase in violent crime from 2019 to 2020. There was a 12% increase in shooting incidents with injury in Niagara Falls between 2020 and 2021. According to officials, the COVID-19 pandemic is partially to blame for the rise in violent crime.

“People have a lot of time on their hands, frustration, anxiety. It all played a role,” Niagara Falls Police Department Superintendent John Faso said.

Ezra Scott is the co-founder of the Niagara Falls Peacemakers and he said the spike in crime was caused by more than just the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it all comes down to economics, poverty, opportunities, stress, mental health — which is a huge topic going on right now,” Scott explained. “I think social media is a huge issue as well.”

Albany’s effect on policing

In 2019, New York State created bail reform law, so fewer people would stay in jail because they could not afford to bail out. For officers and deputies, new laws have changed how they police, which Sheriff Filicetti says is a challenge for his team.

“They want to go out and do good police work. They want to do good in the community,” Sheriff Filicetti added. “When you see people you arrest get an appearance ticket and they commit the same crime again or another crime again, and they do it over and over and over again, it’s a challenge for them.”

Community leaders say judge discretion is an important part of the legal process and should be expanded.

“I think that is very important to use discretion and take things case by case,” Scott said.

Sheriff Filicetti said gun violence exploded in the Cataract City over the last two years, but it is not just isolated to Niagara Falls.

Buffalo and Rochester have also seen an uptick in gun crime, which Filicetti says filters into his county. With violence on the rise, local, state and federal agencies began targeted hot spot enforcement operations where they spend hours patrolling the streets as one unit.

“Really we come out with a large number of officers to make our presence known and to go after known offenders who may have warrants,” Sheriff Filicetti said.

The operation was conducted on a Friday night in early April. Niagara Falls Police served as the lead agency and they were accompanied by other departments, including the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, New York State Police, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This operation included on the ground patrolling, and helicopter surveillance.

Targeted Hotspot Enforcement Statistics from April 10 in Niagara Falls:

  • Traffic stops/citizen encounters – 127
  • Felony arrests – 11
  • Misdemeanor arrests – 20
  • Narcotics pending charges – 4
  • Traffic infractions – 115
  • Failure to appear warrants executed – 3
  • Gun arrests – 2

“We use our crime analysis center to generate hot spots for different crime throughout the city and we are going to focus our attention on those areas,” Superintendent Faso explained.

For the community, operations such as this one could be a bit jarring, according to Scott. He said not all residents have a strong relationship with police and they might be scared or frightened.

“There’s definitely intimidation factor, especially when a certain parts of the community already doesn’t have the best relationship or the best optics as far as when they think of our police,” Scott said.

The Niagara Falls Police funded this operation with money they received from the New York State Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVES) program.

“We have known offenders out there that are not afraid to pull the trigger. It can happen anywhere. It has happened in this city before,” Sheriff Filicetti added.

Scott says he does not want to defund the police, rather he believes there needs to be a proactive approach.

“Preventative efforts that prevent somebody from not making a bad decision that lands them into pulling the trigger to a gun or going to rob a store,” Scott said. “Now, five seconds that cost them five years or 50 years of their lives.”

“I want to address violent crime. I want to go after the criminals, but I also want people to know that we are just normal people out here doing this job,” Sheriff Filicetti continued. “I think everybody knows we have to do the job the right way. I think there is a disagreement with the community about what that looks like. What is the right way to be doing the job?”

Addressing crime and getting the community involved

At the end of April, Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino announced new programs to help residents across the city. A new text alerts system will allow residents to receive city information on their phone such as local programming for kids and adults. The SNUG Anti-Violence Program is returning to the Cataract City to work with youth who are exposed to violent crime.

Sheriff’s deputies carry sports gear with them that was donated by Victory Sports, where officers can engage with the community through sport and even provide new equipment to neighbors in need. The Sheriff encourages open dialogue between his deputies and the residents they serve, which is something Scott wants to facilitate.

“How can we get more bike patrol during the daytime? How can we have more foot patrol during the daytime not just walking some of their main streets but walking the inner city communities? And being able to have conversations allowing residents and our police force to get to know each other,” Scott added.

Their goal is a simple one: public safety.

“I think that I want the community to know that we want the same thing they want,” Sheriff Filicetti added. They want to live in a safe community. We want to help them have that safe community.”

“Let’s make sure that we’re making the residence aware of what’s out there because the communities with the most resources, I believe, are the communities with the less violence and crime,” Scott concluded.

Sheriff Filicetti said decreasing crime will take more than just changing legislation in Albany. It takes an entire community effort between elected officials, law enforcement, and residents committed to the same goal.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.