A new commission created to monitor complaints of police misconduct and improve race relations in Buffalo will embark on a citywide "listening tour" this summer, with plans to visit every councilmanic district.
The aggressive outreach effort was announced as the Commission on Citizens' Rights and Community Relations plans what some officials call a "coming out" reception at 5 p.m. Thursdayin the lobby of City Hall. Residents are encouraged to attend an event that will include presentations by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and commission members.
During the event, officials will also unveil a one-page complaint form that will be used to initiate investigations.
"We wanted to make it user-friendly, so we boiled it down to a one-page form," said Executive Director Rita Hubbard-Robinson. "This form will trigger an interview, where the individual will give us more detailed information on a longer form."
The commission was created by the new City Charter in 1999. The mayor has been empowered to appoint the 11 members, subject to Common Council confirmation. The panel's duties include developing citywide programs to improve relations among the city's diverse ethnic and religious communities and investigate claims of bias and police misconduct.
"Our role will really be to investigate the process and facilitate appropriate government responses," said Hubbard-Robinson.
The commission has subpoena powers, can take testimony under oath and can conduct public hearings. It will then make recommendations to city officials for dealing with specific incidents.
How much clout does Hubbard-Robinson think the recommendations will carry?
"I believe we have the respect of our peers and the support of the community," she said. "Everyone recognizes that we're carrying out an important mission."
In the coming months, the commission will prepare and distribute a brochure aimed at making people aware of that mission. Without any marketing, Hubbard-Robinson said her office has already received about a dozen calls over the past month from people who are contemplating filing complaints about workplace issues or rights violations.
The commission also intends to examine the city's track record in terms of being an equal opportunity employer, Hubbard-Robinson said.
Some committees are being established, including a task force that will assess current anti-harassment and sensitivity training efforts in the Buffalo Police Department. Former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins, who sits on the 11-member commission, will head the task force.
Another committee will focus on marketing and community outreach efforts.
"Our listening tour will take us into every part of the city," said Hubbard-Robinson. "We want to get the word out that we're here to be an advocate for the people."
Commissioners also plan to do homework outside Buffalo boundaries, examining the effectiveness of other human rights commissions in other parts of the country. Hubbard-Robinson said local officials might even visit other regions in hopes of better understanding what policies are working most effectively.
Under the charter, the commission is entitled to three paid staffers, including an executive director, a secretary and a civil rights advocate. Earlier this month, some commissioners complained about delays in getting the city to approve funding for the two unfilled positions. But Hubbard-Robinson said she's confident the secretary will be hired within a couple weeks, while the civil rights advocate is expected to be hired in April.