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Erie County Sheriff John Garcia (Image courtesy of his office)
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia (Image courtesy of his office)

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia: Stop crimes of opportunity

Sat, Feb 24th 2024 07:00 am

By Karen Carr Keefe

Senior Contributing Writer

As a Grand Island resident, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia takes personally the quest to end the rise in vehicle thefts in town – six total in 2024.

 A new approach with beefed-up police patrols on Grand Island is working, he says. But Garcia stresses that this year’s uptick in these crimes is a trend not only on the Island, but also throughout the county.

His “arsenal” as sheriff includes short-term and long-term solutions. And he points out that the short-term strategy is already showing good results for Grand Island.

“Since we had this uptick this year, we increased patrols after we did an assessment of when the crimes were occurring,” he said.

“So, we had patrols overnight, in a couple ways. We had an additional marked vehicle, and then we also had an unmarked vehicle with plainclothes detectives on the Island.

“I spoke with Supervisor (Peter) Marston, and he provided one of the Grand Island Police Department’s vehicles to work overnights, also.”

“I can tell you this, since then, there’s been no car stolen.”

Garcia verified that there have been six vehicles stolen on Grand Island from the beginning of the year through to Wednesday. One of the six was different than a traditional theft. It was a case of a family member taking the car without the knowledge of the vehicle owner, who had reported it stolen, the sheriff said.

Three out of the remaining five had left their cars unlocked and the keys or the key fob inside the vehicle, Garcia said.

“We never blame the victims of crimes, because it’s not their choice. It’s the criminal,” he noted. “However, I can tell you this: Since we’ve been keeping stats since I started my administration (more than two years ago), 70% of the car thefts that have been reported on Grand Island are ‘preventable,’ in that those were cases where cars were unlocked and the keys were inside.”

He said car theft is prevalent elsewhere in Erie County. For example, there was a huge uptick in car thefts in Clarence and Elma last year, two other towns the county sheriff’s office covers.

“Put it in perspective: Grand Island has five this year; Amherst … they had 14 in one week. The City of Buffalo will have – four out of seven days – double-digit car thefts in one day,” Garcia said.

He recalled when the trend began.

“First it was Kias,” Garcia explained. “You could break the steering column and steal the car without the key. But most of these thefts are crimes of opportunity. (Thieves) go and they check car doors. If they see a car door open, they get in, they put their foot on the brake and they push the start. If that car starts, they steal it. If your car is locked, they move on.”

Garcia sees a potential long-term remedy in the concept behind Monroe County’s Consortium for Safe Communities, a crime-deterrent group that Erie County is a part of. He wants more people in Erie County to sign a petition the consortium supports that’s designed to stop thieves from being released into the community and stealing again. The goal is to change the state’s bail policies to prevent recurrences by the original offenders.

The consortium consists of law enforcement and concerned residents from all walks of life, the sheriff said. They unite to get the state to undo what Garcia sees as the flaws of bail reform that endanger communities such as Grand Island.

He said the Consortium for Safe Communities “doesn’t have anything to do with political affiliation. It’s from urban to suburban to rural, because it affects everybody.”

“We’re asking New York state to consider two new standards in the bail reform.” He said one is related to the car thefts: the repeat offender status.

The scenario Garcia outlined is that a person steals a car, is arrested, but the crime doesn’t qualify as one that detains the suspect. The person is instead given an appearance ticket. “

In the time between getting the appearance ticket and going to see the judge, if they commit another crime, they should be detained,” Garcia said. “Because what we’re seeing is that these individuals that are stealing cars are leaving the booking area before the deputy or the police officer even finishes the paperwork. And they know there’s no repercussions. They know they’re not being held accountable. There’s no responsibility. So, they go out and they do it again.”

“So, it’s not a law enforcement issue, it’s a community issue. We need, first and foremost, our citizens to be vigilant,” he said.

“When you leave your business or your job at night, you’re going to your car – be aware of your surroundings. I’m asking our residents on Grand Island, which I live in, to keep their doors locked, keep their keys and their car fobs out of their car.

“You know, I don’t want to see people take this into their own hands, either. But that goes to show the level of frustration from the victims saying to us, saying to our elected officials, ‘We’re fed up with this and we need changes.’

“Now, other than increasing patrols and putting more deterrents out there as far as law enforcement, we need help from our lawmakers.”

Garcia said, “The other standard that we’re asking for is the ‘risk-to-public-safety’ standard. New York state is the only state in the nation that does not empower judges to detain somebody because they’re a risk to public safety. Now, that is just unacceptable.

“You know what we want? We want common-sense legislation.”

Garcia said the Erie County Sheriff’s Office is going to meet with the sheriff’s offices of Onondaga and Albany counties about the consortium, and Niagara County is going to come on board, as well.

“The purpose of that is to, first, have a lobbying power in Albany of the (Route) 190 major cities – Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany – to offset the power base of New York City,” he said. “Because the bail reform laws have gone so far to benefit the criminal element that they have forgotten a very important piece – and that is the victims that are left behind.

“When you get your car stolen, it’s a personal violation. That car is stolen, many times, right out of your driveway, feet away from where you and your family sleep. In addition to that, when you get your car back, normally, it’s damaged.”

Garcia said that, even with car insurance, there’s a deductible, and with supply chain issues, it could take as much as two months to get the car back from the repair shop or dealership.

He said this sequence of events really affects those who are struggling, and it is what law enforcement is fighting to prevent.

The sheriff explained the way the Island is patrolled and the overlapping roles of town, county and state police.

“Grand Island is part of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office primary response. We are the primary law enforcement for Grand Island at all times,” the sheriff said. “The Grand Island Police has a part-time department on the Island, and the New York State Troopers patrol the I-190 and we do have a ‘closest car’ memorandum of understanding with them where they help. But they don’t have, per se, a fixed patrol on Grand Island. Erie County Sheriff’s Office has two vehicles, at all times, on Grand Island.”

Marston, in a Feb. 8 letter to residents on the town website, put it this way in referring to the rise in vehicle thefts: “All these agencies communicate and work together to ensure safety and serve our community.”

Garcia is pledging to fight for safe communities throughout the county.

“I assure the people from Grand Island, all the way to Newstead, to Sardinia and Brant, and every corner that we cover … that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office is going to be vigilant, and we are going to keep arresting those that commit crimes,” he said. “We are not going to put our blinders on. We are not going to be frustrated because of the laws. We are going to continue fighting the good fight. But we need help from our lawmakers” to put some teeth into the laws regarding such crimes.

“We have to keep our community safe. It really hurt me when I talk to people that lived on Grand Island as I do, and my wife and my daughter do, and my nephew and his family. … You know what I hear, ‘We feel less safe.’ That breaks my heart.

“But just so you know, it’s not a Grand Island issue. It’s an Erie County and New York state issue. People feel less safe because we forgot about the victims. We forgot about our community and we’re catering to the criminal. And we have to change course.”

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