A volunteer citizen police force that has been patrolling many neighborhoods received a boost Tuesday when the Common Council voted to restore the group to the City Charter.
But the move also puts pressure on officials to quickly resolve a lingering liability issue. Under the plan, the 90-member auxiliary police force must obtain a $1.5 million insurance policy that protects the city in the event that a volunteer is sued.
Officials from the Buffalo Special Police said they will need help from the city and the business community in raising the $50,000 it will cost for insurance. But they were buoyed by the Council's vote.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," said Special Police Chief Ernest LaPlante, pointing out that his group can enhance police presence at a time when the city is downsizing its force. The uniformed volunteers do not deal with felonies or other serious crimes, he emphasized. "We want to help with the small stuff, including patrols at special events," LaPlante said.
The action must still be approved by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello after a public hearing. But the Council's unanimous vote would seem to ensure that the auxiliary force will be put back in the Charter.
Dennis R. Brennan, the group's chief of patrol, said the amendment goes far beyond addressing a technicality. It should improve communication and coordination between volunteers and the Police Department, he said.
Created in 1927, the Special Police force was largely dormant until this year, when citizens were recruited to help patrol streets in South Buffalo, Lovejoy and other neighborhoods. The group was removed from the Charter several years ago.
Another public safety issue surfaced during the 2 1/2 -hour Council session. The head of the Municipal Housing Authority agreed to delay plans to implement controversial changes in patrol policies at the city's 27 public housing developments until lawmakers' concerns are discussed.
Cuts in federal aid have prompted the Housing Authority to downsize its security force. Nine officers have already been dropped from the force, and three more are scheduled to be dropped next month.
Plans call for eliminating roving patrol cars, instead assigning officers to specific housing developments. Another change would route all 911 calls to city police officers, rather than the current policy of having the Police Department handle only high-priority calls. Many lawmakers fear that the moves would create heavier workloads for city officers and increase crime in housing developments.
Council members were pleased to receive assurances from Sharon M. West, Housing Authority executive director, that a planned Thursday vote on changes in patrol policies will be delayed until lawmakers' concerns are aired.
In other actions, the Council:
Called on the state to require Erie County to share more sales tax revenue with local governments. The unanimous vote reaffirmed a position that city lawmakers have taken for years.
Delayed action on a plan to hold a referendum early next year so that city voters can decide whether Buffalo should sell its water system to the Erie County Water Authority.