By Terry O’Neill
Once again, a cellphone video has captured images of police officers apparently using excessive force. I have no criticism whatsoever of the swift action that Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has taken, but this image is out there and it reinforces a general lack of trust in the police on the part, most especially, of citizens of color.
Buffalo is not alone in contemplating vivid images of police use of excessive force. A January incident in a downtown nightclub in the City of Troy has sparked public protest and legislative action calling for inquiry.
And this past year in New York City, the Police Department’s over-the-top abuse of its stop-and-frisk tactic led to a landmark federal court decision, the imposition of a federal monitor and strict new legislative oversight of the department, and was a major and deciding factor in the city’s mayoral election.
People and the legislative bodies that represent them are fed up with hyper-aggressive police tactics that disproportionately affect minorities. Falling crime statistics notwithstanding, the people want something better from their police. We have a term for that: community policing – a philosophy based on partnership between law enforcement and community stakeholders in solving problems and enhancing community quality of life.
Many local governments have undertaken efforts to evaluate the organization and operations of their law enforcement agencies and to encourage the implementation of the principles of community policing. The Buffalo Common Council did this four years ago when it created a commission on which I served. We quickly found that modern policing has become so sophisticated and technical that a group of volunteers like us needed expert technical assistance and advice. I knew from experience that the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services had the capacity to offer that kind of assistance, but I was informed that the agency didn’t have the statutory authority to provide it.
I got involved in the Buffalo commission at the invitation of then-Councilman Michael Kearns, who now represents South Buffalo in the State Assembly. His commitment to improving the state of relations between the people of Buffalo and their Police Department is as strong as ever. He has introduced legislation that would give DCJS the authority to conduct management studies of county and municipal criminal justice agencies at the request of a local executive or legislative body. Such an objective evaluation would give those responsible for shaping and funding municipal services the best possible information on which to base their decisions and give the state a prominent role in promoting community policing.
Terry O’Neill is director of the Constantine Institute, which promotes the highest constitutional, legal, ethical and professional standards in law enforcement.