Buffalonians might think Officer John Cirulli is the first city patrolman caught on a cellphone video taking a few free smacks at a handcuffed defendant. But Officer Anthony Porzio beat him to it.
Porzio is featured in a video, now on YouTube, swinging his forearm into the face of a handcuffed and passive drug suspect in 2010.
Last November, a rookie Buffalo officer was charged with cultivating marijuana plants in his basement. But James Hamilton, who posted a Facebook photo of himself wearing shades and a “Party All Day” T-shirt, wasn’t the first Buffalo cop found growing pot plants. Jorge Melendez would regularly check on his marijuana-growing operation – while in uniform and out of his territory – drug investigators discovered in May 2012.
Because the Buffalo department until last week let its officers violate state law by moonlighting directly for bar owners, Officers Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei found themselves in an ugly bar scene that led to the serious injury of a patron. Their actions soon after led to their suspensions without pay.
But with Buffalo police, stranger things have happened. In 2010, three cops got into a bar fight after a police awards dinner. In 2006, two officers responding to a domestic dispute ended up exchanging blows themselves.
Certainly, bad stuff goes on in many police departments. But Buffalo’s police have maintained a steady drumbeat for years. Just in recent weeks, the news out of Mollys Pub – that Eloff might have helped conceal evidence of an assault – arrived on the heels of Cirulli’s viral video.
Eloff asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination Friday when called to testify in a court proceeding. Cirulli is expected to plead guilty next week to civil rights charges and resign from the force.
It all raises the question: Can the culture of the department be changed?
“It’s a terrible time,” said Ralph V. Degenhart, who as police commissioner under Mayor Jimmy Griffin in the late 1980s and early 1990s did not like to let wayward officers relax at home collecting pay while the internal investigation played out. Sometimes he would make them monitor the streets outside headquarters and ticket the cars of fellow officers who double-parked.
Degenhart, now 96, doesn’t want to judge current Commissioner Daniel Derenda, but wonders if he has the right commanders in place to instill professionalism at every level.
Even rank-and-file Buffalo police are concerned about their current image.
“Every job has stupid people who do stupid things, and when one person does something wrong, it drags us all down,” said one officer, who asked to remain unidentified because he lacked permission to speak publicly.
“Please don’t judge us all by what a few have done,” he said.
Officers with the large Buffalo Police Department – it has about 750 sworn officers – have engaged in many forms of dubious conduct. Here is a sample just since Byron W. Brown became mayor in 2006:
• Milton J. Jeffries tacked $40 towing fees onto hundreds of parking tickets though he never called for a tow truck. He was suspended.
• Gregg O’Shei – Adam O’Shei’s uncle – spared at least two women from arrest if they agreed to have sex with him. He resigned and pleaded guilty to charges.
• Patrick O’Mara took tens of thousands of dollars in pay he didn’t deserve as he milked the on-duty injury he suffered carrying two reams of copy paper. O’Mara, who pleaded guilty in federal court, had refused to work even desk duty. But the FBI learned he was fit enough to serve as a church organist, lift a home air conditioner and visit the state fair.
• Seven years ago, when someone stole the mayor’s family auto from in front of his home and smashed it into some parked cars, the police barely investigated. After the mystery made the news, the mayor’s son admitted taking the Equinox and the matter was chalked up to youthful indiscretion. However, by then it had become clear how many stones the department had left unturned in failing to solve the case.
• Go back a little further in Police Department history and you’ll find a team of narcotics detectives taking bribes from drug dealers.
“I was a dedicated police officer, a man of integrity, I did my job,” one of the corrupt detectives, Darnyl Parker, said when sentenced in 2002. He chalked up his downfall to a lack of supervision. “Fifteen years I had a supervisor and no trouble,” he said. “I had eight months with no supervisor. All of a sudden I’m in jail.”
Message from the top
Is it lack of supervision, then, that contributes to the general unruliness Buffalo sees in its police force?
Sgt. Gail Wischmann says police departments operate successfully when the right message emanates from the top. She is the professional standards officer for a sheriff’s department in Fargo, N.D., and treasurer of the National Internal Affairs Investigators Association, through which some 300 police agencies share practical advice and arrange training.
Professionalism, she says, starts at the pinnacle of the command staff and moves through the layers of leaders, who must be engaged and involved. “Everybody has to be treated the same,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter if it is a captain or a deputy on patrol ... you have to have consistency when it does come to discipline.”
Buffalo’s supervisors have not uniformly embraced the highest values. In 2011, internal investigators showed up at the police station in the Theater District at around 10:30 p.m. They found that four officers, who were scheduled to work until 2 the next morning, had already ended their shifts. So had two lieutenants.
It wasn’t a unique event. The personnel were engaged in “the slide”– when a supervisor releases subordinates early though they are still paid for the time.
Derenda was appointed commissioner in 2010 with no college degrees, unusual for a department the size of Buffalo’s. But he did have 24 years on the force, including four as a deputy commissioner. He also had busily assisted the mayor’s political campaigns and was trusted by Brown and Deputy Mayor Steven Casey, who staged only a limited search for candidates after firing H. McCarthy Gipson.
Gipson learned of his termination as he lay in a hospital’s intensive care unit. Brown later told him he had been too soft on discipline. Some Common Council members argued the city should be able to find better candidates than Derenda. But the Council confirmed him in a 5-4 vote.
Derenda says the mayor expects him to enforce the rules, and he has done just that. Slides are said to be extinct. Further, the department has sharply reduced the number of officers receiving pay while home with injuries. In July 2011, the department had 116 officers on injured status, roughly 15 percent of the force. Today the number is in the 20s. Meanwhile, Derenda has been quick to alert the FBI about serious matters – the Cirulli video and the event at Mollys Pub among them.
“We’ve been very active with discipline,” Derenda said. “We take complaints seriously. Unfortunately, from time to time things do happen, as you can see. We don’t condone inappropriate behavior.”
Doing the right thing
But what about creating a culture in which the vast majority of officers refuse to tolerate wrongdoing by their peers that would bring shame on the organization?
“I think we are getting there,” Derenda said, explaining that the vast majority of officers do the right thing.
“We want people to have this professional attitude all the time. If they don’t have it, and they do something wrong, they are held accountable, all the time.”
Though Derenda does take action, the public doesn’t always get to see the final outcome of internal disciplinary matters. Police in New York State have a status given to few other public employees. Their disciplinary histories cannot be made public if citizens request the records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
So the public will likely never learn what was done about the Buffalo investigators who searched a first-floor apartment for drugs when they had a warrant for only the second-floor apartment. Or what occurred with the Buffalo officers involved in a melee that broke out after a motorist asked an officer to simply move up her patrol car so other cars could exit a convenience store parking lot.
Or whether Porzio will be sanctioned for that wallop to a handcuffed man’s face.
Porzio, still on active duty, is awaiting a hearing two years after the video became public. The city currently has a huge backlog of police grievances and police-related legal matters to deal with, Corporation Counsel Timothy W. Ball said in March when asked why a police dispatcher facing her second prostitution arrest was still on the job.
Bernard Melekian is the former police chief in Pasadena, Calif., and former president of the California Police Chiefs Association. He later directed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which examines how police can prevent crimes and not just respond to crimes after they occur.
Today he is a nationally recognized expert on policing. The News reached him in Seattle – where he advises the mayor on policing issues – to ask how administrators can create a culture in which peers don’t tolerate misdeeds that reflect badly on the group, a culture where you would not find, say, a uniformed officer checking on his marijuana plants.
“There’s a saying in the policing business that culture trumps policy,” Melekian said. A police chief can lay down rules, and new rules when those rules are broken, he explained, but if the culture of the agency is to ignore those rules, then the culture wins.
The slide seems to be an example of culture trumping policy. The Buffalo Police Department had a rule that officers work until their shifts end. But the culture, at least as some cops saw it, deemed the rule as not greatly important.
How, then, to change the culture?
Melekian offered no radical idea.
“You create a culture of accountability, and you make it clear that that culture starts at the top,” he said offering advice similar to the advice from Wischmann, of the Internal Affairs Investigators Association. But he went on to say that police chiefs then can convey the attitude that the real police work is done by street patrols, detectives and dispatchers, not administrators in the upper reaches. Third, chiefs can recognize the good community-based work done by officers, not just the heroic work, which most departments do.
“For the most part, law enforcement agencies across the country hire the best people,” Melekian said. “Whatever the screening process is, whatever the exam is, they hire really good people – for the most part.
“And so then the question is, what happens to those people over the course of a few years when they get involved in a major scandal or something like that? And that is the question that a lot of administrators and police scholars are looking at now ...
“What is it in the police culture,” he asked, “that changes people?”