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Sheriff Garcia wants to stop violent crime before it happens; the Erie County Legislature just dedicated $1M to that mission

The new Behavioral Threat Assessment Team within the Erie County Sheriff's Office will try to identify those set out to conduct violent acts and stop them.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the wake of the domestic terrorist attack at the Jefferson Avenue Tops on May 14, law enforcement officials have been trying to figure out how to prevent similar acts of mass violence in the future. 

"This is our goal, and it's going to be difficult to quantify, to prevent a terrorist attack like occurred [on May 14]," Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said. 

The Erie County Legislature Thursday approved the $1 million needed to fund the six-person investigatory team within the ECSO. According to Legislator Joe Lorigo, the funding is coming from a fringe account within the county government. 

"While the sheriff's office is public safety, and making sure that people in Erie County are well protected, my job as a legislator is to make sure that they're financially protected," Lorigo said. "When he was able to work with the administration on finding a funding source, all parties came together, and we were able to get this behavioral threat assessment team on track."

The Behavioral Threat Assessment Team, as it will be known within the sheriff's office, will have a two-pronged approach to identifying threats. 

"Instead of sitting back and waiting, and you never know what's going to happen, our community are going to be our eyes and ears," Garcia said. "We're going to partner with everyone from school districts, nonprofits, hospitals."

The rise in school threats in recent years is an example where the BTAT can monitor threats and step in, not necessarily to make an arrest, but to partner with mental health professionals in providing assistance as well. 

"It doesn't have to be where the person ends up in handcuffs, if they end up getting treatment for mental health, wellness, or whatever the case might be, that's a win for us," Garcia said. 

The other approach the Behavioral Threat Assessment Team will take is monitoring the dark corners of the internet to track threats and intervene before they are carried out. The BTAT will be partnering with state and federal partners in this, often difficult, task. 

"They have talented people that could do deep dives into this dark web," Garcia said. "The US Secret Service is going to do the certification, and they're going to do the training free of charge to the Erie County Sheriff's Office."

But searching the dark corners of the web opens up other difficulties for law enforcement. 

In the case of the domestic terrorism incident at Tops, the shooter allegedly posted their manifest mere minutes before killing 10 Black people and injuring three others. 

Garcia says the partnerships are crucial. 

"They're going to bring in their analysts, our people are going to be the boots on the ground, people knocking on doors, finding out what's going on talking to school staff, and so on," he said.

The other difficulty in an offensive approach to stopping mass violence before it occurs is the potential infringement of civil liberties, something that Sheriff Garcia was open about. 

"You can't say 'fire' in a movie theater, you can't say 'I have a bomb' in an airport," Garcia said. "So what we're going to to do without infringing people's constitutional rights, freedom of speech, and rights to bear arms, is to get ahead of this."

The idea of a Spielberg-esque dystopian scenario did come to mind for Legislator Lorigo as well. 

"I couldn't help but think of the old Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, and preventing crimes or arresting people before they occur," Lorigo said. "I spoke about that with the sheriff and we had conversations with the legislature about that, and I'm confident that's not what this is."

"This is having boots on the ground, having trained law enforcement professionals, who know how to see the signs of something that might happen, and then work to help with that person."

That person, Sheriff Garcia said, is increasingly easy to identify. 

"Listen, we have 18 to 28-year-old white males that are causing most of the mass shootings, if not all of them," Garcia said. "You don't see females, you seldom see minorities, so there is already a template in place."

The Erie County Sheriff's office is getting ahead of a state mandate that all county sheriff's offices create some form of behavioral threat team by January 2023. Garcia says the Erie County team will be in place as early as September, but definitely by the end of the year. 

"It's all about eliminating threats, eliminating that pathway to violence," Garcia said. 

Garcia went on to say that success might not be highlighted in a press release, and many of the wins will be in the dark. 

"It's hard to quantify how we're going to keep data on this, because when you prevent a crime, how do you keep track of that, but that's going to be our goal, preventing violence."

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