N.Y. counties receive $100K for creation of new domestic terror assessment team

The team will be charged with catching "warning signs" that a person may become violent and disrupting potential incidents before they occur


By Harold Mcneil
The Buffalo News   

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The City of Buffalo and Niagara County will each receive $100,000 from New York State to create their own threat assessment management teams to assist in combating domestic terror attacks like the one that occurred a Tops supermarket in Buffalo on May 14.

The teams — composed of law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, school administrators and other community stakeholders — will be charged with catching so-called "warning signs" that a person may become violent and then disrupting potential incidents before they occur. In addition to Buffalo and Niagara County, the first teams will launch in Monroe County, the city of Troy, and then one statewide, said Jackie Bray, the state commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

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Bray appeared Tuesday afternoon at Buffalo Police Headquarters with Rep. Brian Higgins and other officials to announce the $500,000 in funding.

Bray added that counties can decide whether they want to support county, city or regional teams.

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order May 18 to put the county-based teams in place.

New York has launched several other anti-terror initiatives in the wake of the Tops massacre, including the creation of a new State Police unit to track online radicalization, and a new homeland security team to address domestic terror. By the end of the year, every county in New York must also submit a plan for detecting and confronting threats of racially motivated domestic terrorism.

Police Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia noted Tuesday that the Buffalo Police Department has already been engaged in efforts with a region-wide threat assessment team that began in November 2021. The infusion of state money will help Buffalo in boosting those efforts, he said.

"This grant will help save lives. Let's be very clear about that," Gramaglia said.

The new program is closely modeled on a three-year-old initiative in Monroe County called the Rochester Threat Advisory Committee, or ROCTAC, which will also receive funding to expand its operations. As of late June, that team had intervened in 38 cases where a person appeared to pose a risk of violence, Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter told The Democrat & Chronicle — though it is impossible to say whether those interventions prevented future attacks.

Like ROCTAC, the new threat assessment teams will consist of representatives from across the community. Monroe County's 28-member team includes participants from local schools and colleges, social service agencies, non-profit organizations, local and federal law enforcement and private businesses, including Wegmans and Kodak. After receiving a referral through a participating organization or a confidential tip line, ROCTAC members assess the risk that a person might spiral toward violence and connect him with support services, often related to mental health.

Such programs work, Bray has said, because attackers' paths to violence are often predictable. The accused Buffalo gunman displayed several known warning signs, for instance, including killing and mutilating a stray cat and writing that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide as part of a class assignment.

Funding for the new threat assessment teams comes through the Department of Homeland Security's Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program, which will also support new statewide training initiatives and research into domestic terrorism prevention. The $500,000 comes in addition to $10 million in state domestic terrorism funding that Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in August.

"The truth is there is an increase in targeted violence across the country, and an increase in domestic violence extremism across the country. The threats we face, and that our communities face, are far more diverse and far more intangible to get our arms around than they were 20 years ago," Bray said Tuesday.

"And so New York is leading the way by pioneering county level, city level, local threat assessment and management teams in all of our communities. The governor made this a priority after the awful attack on May 14 in this city of this year, and wanted to make sure communities have the resources they need to be able to interrupt targeted violence before it happens," she added.

At Tuesday's news conference, Gramaglia described how his department will use the $100,000 in state funding.

"Funding for this project will go to hire an additional project manager, among other things, that will help bring this coordinated effort together, coordination of meetings, implementation and communications plan to assist with threat and report training focusing on behavioral approaches and violence prevention. The manager will also coordinate cases presented to the team, collect data and work to increase awareness so that anyone who identifies a person they believe is on the pathway to violence, we can do something to intervene before that happens," Gramaglia said.

He added that the team will consist of four detectives and a detective sergeant who will be going out and doing live active investigations from the moment they become aware of a potential threat in an effort to intervene.

"Our crime plan in the City of Buffalo is based on crime prevention. Unfortunately, when things happen, we also have to have the resources to try to solve those crimes. The better job we do at preventing the crime, the more it frees our detectives up to do the work that they need to do. That comes with funding that has been provided here by both the federal government, the governor's office and commissioner's office, as well," Gramaglia said.

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