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Special Police accused of improper enforcement

A volunteer police force patrolling some city neighborhoods has engaged in improper enforcement activities, according to Buffalo's police commissioner.

Responding to a proposal that would give the volunteers the power to issue tickets to people who make excessive noise and commit other quality-of-life offenses, H. McCarthy Gipson responded with a letter to the Common Council.

"The Buffalo Special Police have engaged in the enforcement of activities beyond their scope, i.e., conducting searches and detaining people without just cause or due process," Gipson told lawmakers.

The commissioner's letter did not elaborate on specific instances, and the head of the volunteer force said the allegations are baseless.

"I have no idea what he's talking about," Ernest LaPlante said Monday, adding that he thinks Gipson's concerns have more to do with politics than law enforcement.

Founded in 1927, the volunteer force has about 60 members. Volunteers are trained and carry firearms. They also wear uniforms. While the group was dormant for many years, some members have been engaging in patrols. In recent months, the force has focused on the Riverside neighborhood, although volunteers in recent years worked in the Masten, Lovejoy and South districts, and in other neighborhoods.

This summer, North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. touted a plan to use the volunteer force to crack down on neighborhood nuisances such as unkempt properties, public drinking and rowdyism.

But Gipson's letter, which will be reviewed at today's Council meeting, raises several concerns about the Buffalo Special Police. One issue involves the allegations that the volunteers have overstepped their bounds when it comes to searching and detaining people.

The only incident LaPlante said he recalled that would even loosely fall into this category occurred earlier this year near Riverside Park. He said a member of the volunteer force found a boy who had marijuana. The minor was held until city police arrived.

"We had to call [police] four or five times," LaPlante said.

When an officer finally arrived, LaPlante said, he determined that there wasn't enough marijuana to charge the boy.

LaPlante also denied Gipson's claim that volunteers have conducted improper searches.

"We don't search people, but we do perform quick pat-downs to make sure there's no weapons. That's only for our own safety," LaPlante said.

Gipson's spokesman would not elaborate on the alleged problems. "We will not get into specific instances," Michael J. DeGeorge said. "But it's fair to say we have concerns."

Gipson raised other issues:

*Volunteers wear uniforms that closely resemble police officers' uniforms. Gipson called the attire "deceptive."

*The volunteer force has yet to provide an indemnification clause that would protect the city from any liability as result of actions by the Buffalo Special Police.

*The force claims peace officer status and offers classes to members to obtain such status, when such certification can only be granted by the state.

LaPlante, who learned about Gipson's letter from The Buffalo News, said he's disappointed and surprised that the commissioner has raised the issues. LaPlante said he met earlier this year with Gipson.

"We thought all these issues were resolved," LaPlante said.

Dennis R. Brennan, the group's chief of patrol, defended the training volunteers receive, saying the academy he operates is widely regarded. He said volunteers who don't follow proper procedures are dismissed. He added that volunteers do not profess to have peace officer status, contrary to Gipson's claim.

Golombek said he's aware of Gipson's concerns and is hoping to help reach a compromise on lingering worries.



Buffalo Special Police

History: The volunteer police force was founded in 1927. At one point, it had 120 members. It currently has about 60 members.

Activities: Volunteers carry firearms and wear uniforms. Dormant for many years, the force was recently reinstituted. It has been patrolling some neighborhoods, primarily in Riverside this year, and at parks and special events.

Training: Volunteers receive 120 hours of law enforcement training at a state-accredited academy, then receive four hours of monthly inservice training.

Liability: The City Charter requires the force to have its own liability insurance. The current policy provides $2 million for each occurrence. Source: Chief Ernest LaPlante, Buffalo Special Police

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