Through its Mini Notifications program, the Buffalo Police establish a relationship between police and youth to prevent gun violence by identifying and working with those who are most at-risk and believed to be involved with gun violence in the community.
- Agency: Buffalo Police Department
- Location: Buffalo, N.Y.
- Department size: Large (>50 officers)
- Program started November 2018
During the five-year period from 2014 through 2018, the Buffalo Police Department reported consistently high counts of shooting incidents despite efforts to deter gun violence. The city had an average of 215 shootings incidents annually during that time frame, with a high of 262 incidents in 2016. Shooting homicides increased 29 percent in 2018, with 45 reported compared to 35 homicide victims in each of the previous three years. According to the Buffalo Police Department, many of these incidents involved individuals who ranged in age from 14 to 25, so the department decided to pursue a different, preventive approach to decrease gun violence among this population.
The Buffalo Police Department conducts custom notifications as part of its violence reduction efforts. Included in the National Network for Safe Communities Group Violence Intervention strategy, custom notifications are home or street visits by police and community service providers to individuals identified by police as potentially being engaged in violence. These visits help to quickly interrupt cycles of group-related violence and address retaliation and active disputes. Custom notifications let individuals know that they are valued members of the community but put them on notice that violence will not be tolerated and they will face specific risks and consequences if they continue to engage in violence. The police and service providers also offer opportunities for help with any needs the individuals may have, such as returning to school, assistance with current schooling, job training or employment. Buffalo custom notifications typically take place every four to five weeks.
The Buffalo Police Department began supplementing these custom notifications for youth with more frequent, but less formal and shorter, notifications conducted only by police officers. Youth are identified from intelligence, including social media posts that indicate potential involvement with illegal gun use, analyzed by the Erie Crime Analysis Center. Supervising lieutenants in two targeted districts in Buffalo review the social media reports in conjunction with officer intelligence and identify youth who will receive mini notifications that day. While there is no age requirement, for youth identified are typically 14 and 25 years old. Three police officers and a lieutenant conduct each mini notification, which can last from five to 20 minutes, with youth and/or their family members. During the visit, officers make it clear that they are there to talk with youth and/or their families about their activity, not to search their home or make an arrest. This message is important and aims to ease any tension about the interaction, which makes the individuals more receptive to hearing the messages conveyed during the mini notification.
The officers request to come into the youth’s home in an effort to connect with the individual and build trust using the principles of procedural justice: opportunities for voice, neutrality in decision making, respect in treatment, and trustworthiness in actions and motives. The goal is to have a conversation about the youth’s life choices and to steer the individual away from violence. The officers make it known that the department will continue to engage with the youth as long as the individual continues to be involved in at-risk behavior in an effort to deter the individual from perpetrating or being victimized by gun activity. Police officers also speak with parents, grandparents, or any other influential person in the youth’s life or home. A family member contact is important due to the young age of the at-risk individuals.
Police continue to monitor social media posts and other intelligence until those sources indicate that the individual is no longer known to be involved with criminal activity. Officers performing notifications volunteer for the detail and are selected on the basis of seniority on any given day. This results in different officers visiting youth and their families on a regular basis, which is beneficial because more people are coming in contact with the youth.
Mini notifications are funded in part through the state’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) initiative, which is administered by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
To conduct mini notifications and custom notifications, the Buffalo Police Department relies on the Erie Crime Analysis Center to provide reports on social media activity. The department partners with Peace Makers, Stop the Violence Coalition, Buffalo Employment Training Center, Northland Workforce Training Center, and PathStone to provide community outreach services and other resources.
Program Reviews or Evaluations
While no formal review or evaluation has been completed on the mini notification program, the Buffalo Police Department saw reductions in gun violence during the first year of the program. The department started conducting mini notifications in November 2018, conducting 96 mini notifications in 2018 and 485 in 2019. They made contact with approximately 320 individuals during that time: 95 youth with the remaining contacts made with influential individuals in their lives. The majority of individuals contacted received one to two visits, although some individuals were contacted as many as five times. Out of the 95 individuals visited, five individuals (5%) were victims of gun violence in four shooting incidents and 18 individuals (19%) were arrested for gun possession, all post-notification.
Buffalo shooting incidents dropped 26 percent in 2019 compared to 2018 (153 and 206 shooting incidents, respectively), and homicides declined by 18 percent in 2019 compared to 2018 (37 and 45 homicide victims, respectively). While the direct cause of the reductions cannot be determined, Buffalo’s comprehensive gun violence reduction efforts, including mini notifications, are likely to have played a role.
The National Network for Safe Communities’ Group Violence Intervention guidance suggests that violence can be reduced when law enforcement, community members, and social service providers partner to engage directly with violent street groups and clearly communicate 1) a credible, moral message against violence; 2) a credible law enforcement message about the group consequences of further violence and 3) a genuine offer of help for those who want it.
Research suggests that when police officers incorporate procedural justice into their interactions with residents, it promotes positive organizational change in their agencies, fosters good relations with the community, and enhances safety for officers and the public. Community relations that encourage strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and communities are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing.
Critical Success Factors
- The consistent messaging of mini notifications is essential. Individuals understand that the police’s message is sincere and consequences are expected.
- Incorporating procedural justice in the mini notification approach is key for individuals to understand that the police are building a connection with the youth community and care about their trajectory.
- Training on procedural justice ensures staff utilize its principles and increases program support. The department coordinated procedural justice train-the-trainer training to develop in-house capacity for this training, and a training for upper management from the National Network for Safe Communities fostered engagement from the top down.
- Support for the program by agency executives is necessary for officers to be fully engaged in the notification process. Occasionally, district chiefs in Buffalo participate in mini notifications, which further encourages officer participation.
- Take time to explain the mini notification goals and expected interactions with individuals to police staff to alleviate concerns and apprehensions. The department found that detectives were concerned about these interactions interfering in shooting and homicide investigations, while many officers believed the department was giving up intelligence gleaned from the social media posts.
- Allow officers to volunteer for these engagements, rather than assigning them, when possible to increase officer buy-in for the program. Some officers were concerned about the danger of arriving unexpectedly at youths’ homes, and others did not consider the work within their scope of duties.
- Establish the appropriate number of police officers to conduct mini notifications. The department settled on one lieutenant and three officers to ensure officer safety in high violence areas. At the same time, the number of police conducting the mini notification should not make the individual and/or their family or others feel uneasy during the interaction.
- In March 2020, the Buffalo Police Department stopped in-person notifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notifications gradually began again in May 2020 but were modified due to COVID concerns. Officers only conducted the mini notifications outside of individuals’ homes, which greatly reduced the rapport and conversation.
- Notifications are gradually increasing as restrictions are being lifted.
- Many community resources and the credible messenger component were lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the department is reestablishing those relationships.
- The department is looking to establish routine follow-up meetings with officers and community partners who participate in the mini and custom notifications to encourage continued follow-up with individuals and generate accountability.
Contact Buffalo Police Department