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County official Mark Poloncarz on Buffalo's response to the racist attack


We're going to stay in Buffalo a little longer to hear more about how the community is responding to these terrible events. So we called Mark Poloncarz. He is county executive for Erie County, N.Y. That's where the city of Buffalo is located. Mark Poloncarz, welcome. Thank you for joining us. And please allow me to express my condolences for what your community is going through.

MARK POLONCARZ: Thank you, Michel. This is something that you would wish on no one. And I hope no other community in the United States has to deal with what we're dealing with today.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that people are telling you, your constituents are telling you, and that you're feeling right now?

POLONCARZ: Well, you see shootings across the United States, which unfortunately have come much too often, but you never assume it's going to happen in your own community. And when you do, there's hurt. There's anger. Right now, people are trying to process this, where an individual from outside of our community came here to kill as many people as he could, predominantly who are African American. So not only did we have a mass shooting, we had a mass shooting that had racial animus, in which a white supremacist tried to kill as many people in our community for what we can all gather is just his pure hatred.

Right now this community is hurting, but the city of Buffalo is known as the city of good neighbors. We come and rally around each other. So we will not be defined by this incident. We will be defined by how we rally around the families who've lost loved ones and to assist others who are in pain as a result of this traumatic experience.

MARTIN: Is there anything you can tell me at this moment about some of the people who you know were victims? Do you do you know any of them, or have you ever had any relationships with any of them? And just what - can you just tell us anything about some of the people who were lost in this attack?

POLONCARZ: Well, we're just starting to learn about all of the individuals. It wasn't until, unfortunately, late last night that all of the bodies had been removed from the supermarket due to the ongoing investigation. All the families have been notified. I have met at least two of the people. I do not even know all the 10 names yet, but I had previously in the past met the top security officer, Aaron Salter, who just had retired from the Buffalo Police Department. He was well-known in the community. And he's a hero. He saved lives. He engaged the shooter. It appears that he actually not only got three rounds off, but hit the shooter, but the shooter had such heavy body armor on that the bullet did not have any effect on the shooter. And then, unfortunately, retired officer Salter was killed.

There's another woman who I had met, the mother of our retired fire commissioner, Garnell Whitfield. His mother passed away, and I had met her in the past. I mean, it's just horrible when you actually see these incidences across the United States, but now it's in your own community, and it affects people that you have met yourself personally in the past. And it's just something that I would never wish on anyone. And this community is reeling right now. And our goal is to show the people of the world that the city of Buffalo will not respond as maybe the shooter wanted it to be, which is in flames. It's going to support those that need support at this time.

MARTIN: You just alluded to this. There have been at least 198 mass shootings this calendar year alone in the United States. This is according to the Gun Violence Archives. To this point - and it just pains me to say this, that this was the deadliest mass shooting of the year - do you have - have you - as an executive, you've been in public office for some time. Have you been talking about this? As you said, this isn't something that you ever think is going to happen to you, but it is. And I'm just wondering if there had been any discussions about how to respond to situations like this, what kinds of interventions might be possible?

POLONCARZ: Well, both the county and the city actually have active task forces that work together with regards to gun violence in our community. The city of Buffalo is not immune to gun violence in our community, but we've worked hard, especially with our partners and community organizations like Peacemakers and Stop the Violence Coalition, to prevent the violence on the streets that often exists. And we've done a good job. But here's a situation where an individual, who none of us know, had ever heard of until yesterday, from 200 miles away, decided to drive three plus hours from the Binghamton area to Buffalo to kill as many people as he could, predominantly people of color. And I don't know if any community can adequately prepare for someone you have no idea exists who wants to kill as many people in your community as he did. But we do have active efforts on the ground to reduce gun violence, which unfortunately is a significant problem in the United States today.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what are your thoughts about what happens next, about the coming days? I mean, you've alluded several times to the fact that there's the act itself, and then there's what it means and what it means to the people who are the targets of it. And that's all something that everybody's got to process. Have you thought about how you, how the city, how you and other leaders - what are your thoughts about what happens next? Are there thoughts about how you go forward?

POLONCARZ: We in the community, we have to heal, and we have to come together. And that's already started. There was a prayer vigil in front of the supermarket location today. There's going to be a community-wide prayer service at one of our local churches later this afternoon. And that's going to continue. As I said, Erie County is providing free mental health counseling to those who need it, regardless of whether they were a witness, were in the facility, a law enforcement response or just someone who needs to talk to someone else about this horrible incident because of the pain it's caused. So we're going to be actively engaged in this not just for a few days, but probably weeks and months so that our community can recover. Its the kind of scar that is always going to be there. It's never going to be forgotten. But it is something that we will work together to achieve a better community, a stronger community, and one that will not be defined by the incident and the shooter, but will be defined by how we recover from it.

MARTIN: What do you need?

POLONCARZ: Well, in government, we deal with a lot. I mean, this is my third term as county executive. And what I've said is we have a strong team here, and we work through it. But if our staff in itself needs assistance, we're not afraid to take it. We've gone through a lot of crises here. We're just coming off, of course, COVID. And when it comes to government itself, sometimes we forget that we provide services, but sometimes we need them ourselves. I've also already told all of my staff, including one of my key members of my administration, who was basically on site as the event was going on, let us not forget that we who were first responders and those that are working on behalf of the public are still public. And you need to be assured that your mental health and your own health is taken care of. So we're continuing to push that message with law enforcement, first responders and others because when you deal with these issues, you can compartmentalize them, but you never forget them. So you yourself have to understand that we're human, too, and we all have needs, and we thankfully, hopefully will take advantage of them as time goes by.

MARTIN: That was Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He joined us from Buffalo. Mr. Executive, thank you so much for joining us today.

POLONCARZ: Thank you, Michel. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.