Police, judges and the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga are under fire from local civil rights leaders for alleged racial profiling and discrimination against African-Americans who drive, shop or socialize in the town.
While a black Buffalo clergyman announced plans Thursday for a protest at Cheektowaga Town Hall, the president of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP revealed that the organization filed a complaint against the town's two judges last year.
Frank Mesiah, head of the NAACP chapter, said the complaint to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct "documents the disparity of treatment" of black and white suspects by Cheektowaga Town Justices Ronald Kmiotek and Thomas Kolbert.
In one case cited by the NAACP, two teenagers -- one white, the other African-American -- were arrested on the same charges. Neither had a criminal record. The white youth received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, a procedure that dismisses the charge if the defendant does not get into trouble again for a specific period. The African-American teenager, said Mesiah, was required to plead guilty. He was sentenced to probation. The charge remains on his record, according to the NAACP.
"To us, this is blatant racism," Messiah wrote to the commission.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and a member of the Buffalo School Board, said about 100 members of the congregation will attend Monday night's meeting of the Cheektowaga Town Board.
"For a black man, driving through Cheektowaga can be like driving through the deep South -- there is always the fear of the unknown," Pridgen said Thursday.
The East Side clergyman said he will ask Cheektowaga officials to investigate "what we see to be a clear pattern of racial profiling" in traffic stops by town police as well as discrimination at Walden Galleria, Western New York's largest shopping mall.
Growing numbers of teenagers are congregating at the Galleria's food court, but it is the black youths who "are continually being put out of that mall," Pridgen said.
Cheektowaga Police Chief Bruce D. Chamberlin called Pridgen's claims "outrageous -- it's all generalizations and rhetoric."
Since the Cynthia Wiggins tragedy near Walden Galleria more than five years ago, no suburban police department in the region has become more sensitive to race issues or received more diversity training than Cheektowaga's, Chamberlin said.
Wiggins, who was black, was a passenger on a city bus that wasn't allowed to stop on mall property. She died trying to cross seven lanes of traffic to get to her job.
The tragedy led Chamberlin to call the president of Operation PUSH, a civil rights group, which resulted in a meeting of top police and civil rights officials to defuse tensions between black citizens and suburban police officers.
Since then, Cheektowaga police have worked closely with the National Conference for Community and Justice, creating car-stop and "Building Bridges" programs for its officers, Chamberlin said.
"This is all kind of ironic because this department probably has been the leader in dealing with these issues," Chamberlin said. "It comes down to treating all people with respect."
Cheektowaga, which has a small black population, has no black police officers. Chamberlin said no African-American has been on any civil service test list for town police officer that he has seen in the past 10 or 15 years.
Chamberlin said he and other Cheektowaga officers have tried without success to recruit black officers by visiting college campuses and speaking at area job fairs and black churches.
James L. Soos, general manager of Walden Galleria, denied that black teenagers are treated differently from white ones by mall security or town police officers trying to keep order in the food court area. Increasing problems lately with teenagers have prompted the mall to beef up its own security force with town police and reimbursing the town, officials said.
"We have a problem with teenagers, but it's not about skin color -- it's about following rules so that we are able to provide a safe, comfortable shopping atmosphere for all," Soos said.
Those rules, Soos said, include no loitering, horseplay, yelling or blocking other shoppers' passage. "If they can't follow the rules, we ask them to leave," he said.
Mesiah said the NAACP is still looking into a Feb. 3 incident in which a large crowd of teenagers filled the food court. One shopper complained that officers ordered the young African-Americans to leave while bypassing white teenagers.
"All we can do is go out there periodically and see for ourselves if this sort of thing is indeed happening," Mesiah said.
"But our biggest complaint . . . is their two judges," said Mesiah. He said that in its complaint to state judicial investigators, the NAACP cited several cases of allegedly disparate treatment of white and black suspects charged with similar offenses.
Mesiah said he has heard nothing from the Judicial Conduct Committee since the complaint was filed last year. Kmiotek and Kolbert did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Pridgen said he will seek Cheektowaga police arrest and traffic violation records today under the state Freedom of Information Law.
"I really believe there's racial profiling going on, but the proof's in the pudding, and I think their statistics are going to show it," Pridgen said.