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By Mike Hudson

A turf battle between as many as eight rival gang factions has turned much of the city's South End into a shooting gallery, and street cops are shaking their heads as local politicians seem unaware of how bad the situation is becoming and unable to do anything about it.

More than 50 shooting incidents have occurred since the first of the year here, including one Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Pine Avenue and 30th Street, a gun battle at 16th and Niagara streets last Tuesday at 3 p.m., and the city's second homicide of the young year, Thursday at the Monteagle Ridge housing project on Hyde Park Boulevard.

And, while no shots were fired, badly outnumbered city police officers were forced to call in Niagara County Sheriff's Department and State Police units Saturday night when a crowd estimated at 2,000 people rioted outside the Conference Center Niagara Falls following an appearance by gangsta rapper Fat Joe, who himself has been arrested twice and was named by police as a witness in no fewer than three homicides.

More than a dozen people were arrested and a police officer was injured in the Saturday night melee.

The recent violence is linked to the highly successful police raids that broke the back of the Bloods street gang here. Well over 30 members of the gang were rounded up in a series of raids that began last spring and continued into the summer. Dubbed "Operation Blood Clot" by law enforcement, a combined strike force of local, state and federal officers fanned out throughout the city and effectively cut the head off of the violent drug and murder combine.

In the wake of the Bloods' decapitation, as many as eight different groups have sprung up trying to reclaim the two-bit Niagara Falls rackets formerly dominated by the highly organized gang. The result has been an escalation of senseless violence previously unknown in the city, despite its rich history of gangsterism.

Marijuana, crack cocaine, strong-arm robberies and prostitution generate the cash that buys the guns for a new generation of thugs so lacking in intellect that pulling a trigger becomes the rote response for any of life's myriad problems, rather than a last resort.

"The situation has gotten totally out of control," said City Councilman Bob Anderson. "It's to the point where people in these neighborhoods are afraid to go out of their own homes in broad daylight. It's like a war zone."

Anderson has long advocated that a portion of the city's share of revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino be used to hire a minimum of 100 more police officers here, an idea that's been shot down successively by former mayors Irene Elia and Vince Anello, as well as current Mayor Paul Dyster, on the grounds that the money has been earmarked for "economic development."

Currently, the Niagara Falls City Police Department is down to approximately 155 officers, including 16 cadets who will not be fully operational until September, sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter. They are outnumbered on the streets many times over by an army of armed punks, too lazy to work but emboldened by a legal and political system that seems to favor them.

At any given time, sources say, there are just six squad cars on patrol in the whole city.

Police say that if things continue as they are, it's only a matter of time before some elderly person going out for groceries or child coming home from school gets shot.

"It's very serious," Chief of Detectives Bill Thomson told the Buffalo News last week. "Sooner or later, an innocent victim is going to get caught up in this nonsense."

No one is more frustrated than the beat cops whose job it is to go out and deal with these thugs on a day-to-day basis.

"The fire is already burning hot, and if they don't let the police do their jobs, they will have an inferno by summer that all the water in the Niagara River won't be able to put out," one officer told the Reporter over the weekend.

The officer cited a Dec. 28, 2009 case in which two city policemen were involved in a foot chase at the Center Court housing project. The suspect was wanted on numerous warrants, and during the course of the chase was seen making calls on his cell phone.

By the time the pursuing cops tackled him, a crowd had gathered, surrounding the lawmen, who yelled at the people to get back and pulled out their Tasers. The situation was so bad that every police unit in the downtown area responded to the scene.

Enter the Rev. Jimmie Seright, the sometimes controversial Niagara Falls activist whose own sons, Jason Seright, 30, and Jake Seright, 36, were picked up and charged with distribution and possession of drugs last March during "Operation Blood Clot." He met with Mayor Dyster to complain about the officers' behavior in effecting the arrest of the wanted suspect.

The two officers were suspended from duty, ostensibly for using "abusive language" toward the crowd that was threatening them.

"The mayor has allowed the street hoods and thugs to take over the city by empowering them," one veteran cop told the Reporter. "They know that all they have to do is call City Hall."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 16, 2010