Niagara University Professors Researching Gun-Related Crime Trends

February 9, 2017  |  by Michael Freedman

Niagara University criminal justice professors Timothy Lauger, Ph.D., and Craig Rivera, Ph.D., are pictured in front of a shooting network map they created as part of a study funded through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Niagara University criminal justice professors Timothy Lauger, Ph.D., and Craig Rivera, Ph.D., are pictured in front of a shooting network map they created as part of a study funded through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Having conducted several interviews with both victims and perpetrators of gun-involved violence in Niagara Falls, Drs. Timothy Lauger and Craig Rivera say that they are startled by how casually these individuals recount their experiences.

“There are a few individuals in Niagara Falls who have been involved in 10-11 shootings. Sometimes they’re on the receiving end of it, but often they’re shooting,” noted Dr. Rivera. “The frequency with which these types of events occur in their lives is alarming and something that we hope to play a role in addressing through this study.”

The Niagara University criminal justice professors are consulting with the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office on a Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) grant from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Their primary role is to conduct research to assess gun-related crime trends in Niagara Falls, including delineating hotspots, examining underlying reasons for trends, and identifying key groups and individuals responsible for these trends.

The problem-oriented policing strategy, known as lever-pulling, has reduced gun violence in cities like Boston, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati and disrupted drug markets in High Point, North Carolina; Rockford, Illinois; and Nashville, Tennessee. It aims to reduce specific patterns of criminal offending through a process of focused deterrence that identifies, communicates with, and aggressively responds to high-rate offenders in high-crime neighborhoods.

Lever-pulling begins with the establishment of interagency working groups that combine their knowledge of the criminal environment with analysis of crime patterns to target problem areas, groups, and/or individuals.

“Our job is to dig into the available data and identify relevant crime trends that may help the police and the DA’s Office better address gun-related issues,” said Dr. Lauger, who recently received the James L. Maddex Jr. Paper of the Year Award for a study he conducted on gangs in Indianapolis that was published in Criminal Justice Review.

During subsequent “call-in meetings” with law enforcement officials, a carefully selected group of individuals is notified that their actions are being monitored by police agencies and that there is zero tolerance for transgressions (as a form of deterrence). Call-in participants are also provided access to support services, which may include ministry and/or BOCES, among other services.

It aims to reduce specific patterns of criminal offending through a process of focused deterrence that identifies, communicates with, and aggressively responds to high rate offenders in high crime neighborhoods

Drs. Lauger and Rivera have examined issues in the city of Niagara Falls through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. They began their research by participating in approximately 60 hours of ride-alongs with the Niagara Falls Police Department, which exposed them to the conditions experienced by line-level officers. They then analyzed problem places and people in the city.

Utilizing intelligence reports and data from 911 calls provided by the NFPD, the professors determined that all of the firearm-related calls over an eight-month period occurred in 164 street segments in Niagara Falls. Resulting crime maps illustrated that, unsurprisingly, the areas with the highest number of firearm-related incidents are characterized by relatively high rates of poverty. For example, the average median household income for residents living around Highland Avenue (tract 202), 15th Avenue from Pierce to Pine Avenue (tract 209), Memorial Hospital (tract 211), and Ferry Avenue from 17th to 24th Street (tract 213) is $18,649 and 45.5 percent of residents live in poverty.

In addition, to better understand shooting patterns in the city, the professors created a shooting network map using the NFPD’s IBM I2 program. They went through criminal histories to create a network analysis map for each individual’s node, and then linked people to each other based on intelligence reports and whether or not they had ever been part of the same police report.

“Our goal was to provide an extensive network map of offenders in Niagara Falls, discern groupings among offenders and identify shooting trends within the network,” stated Dr. Lauger.

“People tend to separate populations when they think of shootings,” explained Dr. Rivera. “They sort of put the victims in one group over here and the shooters in another group. We’ve found that these groups often overlap.”

The Niagara University professors are assisting the local law enforcement community with implementation of the following lever-pulling strategies:

  • Structuring a notification session that includes the most violent groupings of individuals in the city. The criminal justice working group can notify crew members that any violent behavior by its members (or associates) will lead to intensified efforts to disrupt their drug trade. This may compel them to encourage nonviolence within the crew. After the group has been warned not to engage in violence, it is imperative that any failure by members to comply (i.e., any violence) will lead to an interagency crackdown on the gang.
  • Adapting a focused deterrence strategy for the criminal justice working group so that it can quickly respond to emerging conflicts and problem groups in real time. Once the criminal justice working group successfully arrests and prosecutes a violent offender, they should use that success to send a message to the rest of the Niagara Falls community that gun violence will not be tolerated. When notified offenders are arrested and successfully prosecuted, the criminal justice working group can use them as examples for future notification sessions.
  • Continuing to establish partnerships between the criminal justice working group and residents in disenfranchised Niagara Falls communities. The lever-pulling strategy is an opportunity to take the most violent offenders off the streets while also communicating a message of hope to local residents. The criminal justice working group should communicate what they are doing and why they are doing it to community residents, emphasizing that they are trying to make neighborhoods safer.

While the DA’s Office is very interested in when and where shootings are occurring, there is also an intent to understand why the violence is taking place. The professors, as part of the study, have demonstrated that the two most violent groups in the city have been involved in contagious, reciprocal shootings, but they do not yet have enough qualitative evidence to ascertain what prompted those shootings. So far, academic literature has been relied on to identify how expressive and instrumental motivations may produce violent behavior.

Drs. Lauger and Rivera are still attempting to pinpoint the rationale behind the violent acts in Niagara Falls through conversations they’ve had with members of the law enforcement community, as well as in the limited interviews they’ve undertaken with street-level offenders and victims. The dialogue has taken place in jails, probation offices and homes.

To systematically examine the problem on the local level in this way is a substantial and time-consuming endeavor, Dr. Lauger said, one that is further complicated by the offenders’ knowledge that the academics are working in tandem with law enforcement officials.

Drs. Lauger and Rivera presented their research with members of the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, Niagara Falls Police Department, Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and Niagara County Probation Department at last January’s GIVE Regional Meeting in Rochester, N.Y., and at the New York State Probation Officers Association annual conference in July.