By Rick Pfeiffer
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Falls Police Officer Stan Wills II had barely walked a block on Pine Avenue, when he was surrounded by a group of kids.
"Hey, hey," one of them shouted. "Put me in handcuffs."
Wills stopped, smiled and shook his head.
"You don't ever wanted to be in handcuffs," he replied.
Then Wills stopped and took a few minutes to chat with the elementary school-aged children. He asked them what they were doing on the street and where they were going.
The kids seemed thrilled to have had a conversation with a "real police officer." But they're not the only people on Pine Avenue — and elsewhere throughout the city — to be beaming over the return of beat cops to the Falls Police patrol plan.
"It's a way of making people feel safe," Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said. "(In the case of the officers walking a beat on the Pine Avenue business district) It gives people a feeling of security and then they want to come down to Pine Avenue."
DalPorto says he'd been thinking about adding a walking beat, or as the department calls them "structured patrol," to the arsenal of new community policing tactics he's rolled out. But a daring daylight shooting into a Pine Avenue business may have hastened the arrival of beat cops.
"You know, we met with Bryan and we said we've got a problem on Pine Avenue," said Mike Capizzi, the owner of Michael's Restaurant. "And we told him, this is the city's most vibrant business district. If we lose Pine Avenue, we lose everything."
Capizzi said the street was becoming a place where shady characters would hang out and where customers began to stay away. The shooting at the L.E.O.G. store only made matters worse.
Enter Wills and virtually every other officer on the force, out of their cars and showing a police presence that hasn't been seen in years.
"There's been a 100 percent improvement (since the structured patrols started in February)," Capizzi said. There's less riff-raff hanging around. We really appreciate it."
Wills, and other officers around the city, now spend an average of one hour of their working day out of their patrol cars.
"On all of our beats, the officers are conducting structured patrols," DalPorto said. "They get out of their cars for an hour and walk either a business district or a (residential) neighborhood. It breaks down that (patrol car) windshield barrier between the officer and the public."
Wills said even in the middle of a wicked winter, walking his beat on Pine Avenue hasn't been bad.
"I've been pretty lucky," he said with a laugh. "I haven't had too many of those cold days. It's nice to get out of the car, stretch your legs and meet people. Everyone's coming up to you and saying how neat it is to see cops on a beat again."
No sooner does Wills say that, than a man driving a van leans out his window and calls for him. The man, who lives just off Pine Avenue, says a nearby business has been dumping trash out of its back door and leaving it in the alley.
Wills goes to investigate and finds a complete mess. He then steps inside for a chat with the store manager.
DalPorto, whose first patrol when he joined the department was walking a Pine Avenue beat, says contact like that helps to build trust.
"Look, (walking a beat) is not the most desirable job," DalPorto said. "But it forces the officers to meet people and build relationships."
Wills said he was approached by a man earlier during his beat who told him about an incident that had happened nearby.
I think if he hadn't seen me (walking on the street), he might not have reported it," Wills said.
DalPorto said the department has "just incorporated (walking beats) into the way we do business." And the superintendent credited his patrol captains for getting behind the program.
"I do credit the captains, because they ensure there is always someone walking," DalPorto said. "Capt. (Ron) Lepine (who commands the overnight shift) even has his guys out at daybreak, walking in business districts and rattling door handles to make sure places are secure."
Capizzi said he hopes the structured patrols don't stop.
"All the businesses on Pine Avenue are behind this," he said. "This is a program that works."
Copyright 2014 the Niagara Gazette
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