When H. McCarthy Gipson became a Buffalo police officer 35 years ago, it was a different police department.
In 1971, Gipson made $7,226 a year. There were 1,400 people on the police force in a department that spent about $19 million.
Thirty-five years later, Gipson has been nominated by Mayor Byron W. Brown to become Buffalo's first African-American police commissioner. He inherits a department that has dramatically changed since his early law enforcement days. The force has shrunk to 774 officers. Spending exceeds $90 million with fringe benefits, making it the city's most costly department.
Gipson, a city police officer for 17 years before rising through the ranks, retired from the department as a captain in 1998 to accept a job in then-Erie County Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan's Cabinet. Since his departure, the Buffalo force has continued to shrink, the department has moved to one-officer cars, and wages have been frozen by the control board.
Gipson, 57, known to friends as "Mac," said he will focus on community policing and building police morale. He is also considering boosting manpower in an understaffed Narcotics Unit, increasing the responsibilities of district detectives and reorganizing the specialty units. He is also promising to be an "on the streets" commissioner who will visit station houses "at all hours."
"I feel truly blessed to have the chance to go back and lead the officers of the Buffalo Police Department," Gipson said Wednesday. "They have a very proud and strong tradition of providing service to the citizens."
Gipson is widely respected in law enforcement circles and was described as professional and hardworking.
When he was county holding center superintendent, Gipson was criticized after a Scientology church member financed a 2001 trip for Gipson and a deputy superintendent to visit a Mexican prison where they observed a Scientology anti-drug program that he later tried to implement in the holding center.
On Wednesday, Gipson said he is a Christian and not a Scientologist, but saw the value of the program because "hard-core convicts appeared to be cured of drug addiction."
Brown picked Gipson from a field of 50 candidates, including 18 applicants who were interviewed by the mayor's transition team. Brown also appointed Daniel Derenda and Byron Lockwood deputy police commissioners. Both are detective sergeants and each has two decades of departmental experience.
While Gipson still must be confirmed by the Common Council, which appears certain, he is already giving some early glimpses of his concerns and priorities.
He believes the city might have to rethink plans that call for a continued downsizing of the police to 675 officers. He said there have been some "significant events" since the downsizing plan was drafted three years ago, including the possibility that a casino will be built downtown.
"I would actually like to have the opportunity to revisit the level of manpower to be utilized in the Buffalo Police Department in the next couple of years," he said.
Gipson also hopes to motivate officers to view themselves as neighborhood service-providers. But he said effective law enforcement requires a blend of skills.
"We're going to have to be mobile, agile and slightly hostile in trying to get the job of policing done in the City of Buffalo," he said.
Some community activists, rank-and-file officers and business leaders praised Gipson's appointment.
When Officer Alphonso Wright joined the police force in 1988, Gipson was his lieutenant at the old Precinct 8 at 647 Fillmore Ave.
"McCarthy is an excellent choice because he is fair, honest, and always made sure that officers put their best foot forward," said Wright.
Several officers urged Gipson to implement two-officer police cars in crime-ridden neighborhoods.
"Proactive policing is next to impossible to do when you're out there by yourself," said Ferry-Fillmore Officer Greg O'Shei, who works nights in one of most violent districts in the city.
Police union President Robert P. Meegan Jr. said he has known Gipson for decades and feels he "possesses the good leadership and good direction" for the department. He also supports Gipson's plans to consider using two-officer police cars in high-crime neighborhoods.
"The former police commissioner [Rocco J. Diina] was more hell-bent on monetary issues versus protecting officers and the safety of citizens," said Meegan. "I'm happy to hear McCarthy's statements today that he is concerned about the reduction of manpower."
Jonathan A. Dandes, chairman of the Government Affairs Committee of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area's largest business group, thinks Gipson's knowledge of the Buffalo Police Department and the county Sheriff's Department will foster more collaboration between law enforcement agencies.
The head of a city panel created to improve race relations and probe claims of police misconduct also praised the appointment. Rita Hubbard-Robinson, executive director of the Commission on Citizens' Rights, hopes Gipson will resolve a three-year battle involving the panel's push for access to closed case files on internal probes into police misconduct.
Brown named five people to chief-level positions Wednesday. Northwest District Capt. Dennis J. Richards was named chief of detectives. The other chiefs are Donna Berry, Arturo Salas, Marsha Scott and James Shea.
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