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Buffalo town hall meeting focuses on relations between police, minority communities

Some African-American young people may feel compelled to run if stopped by police.

Dorrell Foster, a 20-something worker with the Buffalo Urban League, acknowledged during a town hall meeting Thursday on improving police and law enforcement relations with minority communities, that fleeing would be his impulse.

But Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly L. Beaty, who shared a panel with Foster at the event held in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, said he shouldn’t feel that way. The common-law right for a police officer to make an inquiry – apart from reasonable suspicion and probable cause – would not compel Foster, or anyone, to answer.

“You don’t have to provide an officer information. You have the right to walk away, if it’s a common-law stop ... I need for everybody to know that,” Beaty said.

Despite the law, Foster expressed skepticism that such a scenario would go down as Beaty described. And so did many in the audience, many of whom were judges and people who work in the court system, judging by the muffled laughter.

The forum – part of the four-day National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Conference – was held in the wake of protests around the nation that have highlighted distrust between law enforcement and various African-American communities.

Joyce Y. Hartsfield, executive director of the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, which hosted the event, said the aim was to bring together various people who work in policing and community relations for solutions on how to overcome that mistrust.

“How are police training police in interacting with the community in order to get a safer environment so the kids do not feel like that man felt, when you first see a police officer, you want to run? I mean, why would they be the person you’re so afraid of?” said Hartsfield.

Earlier Thursday, the Rev. Al Sharpton opened the conference with a keynote speech, saying disparities in sentencing and law enforcement are part of a national focus.

“How you stand up can make you the model of where the nation is going,” he said.

Sharpton said the National Action Network, which he founded in 1991, has been trying to raise those issues for years, but the group’s efforts have been marginalized or ignored “unless there was an incident or an explosion.”

In the past year, Sharpton found himself at the center of several “explosive” situations related to deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Staten Island.

“The incidents are not new,” Sharpton said. “What is new is the technology where everybody is seeing the incidents.”

Sharpton and his organization have come under fire for becoming involved in the situations, often at the request of relatives.

“Many times, they call us because they want national attention. People do not call me because they want to keep a secret,” he said.

The real issue is why they don’t have confidence in calling law enforcement officials, he said.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III was asked about his position on prosecuting alleged police-misconduct cases. He said it depends on the quality of the evidence, the likelihood that the case would make it to court, the proof that a crime was committed and proof that the accused individual committed said crime.

“If that standard is met, we prosecute. If that standard is not met, we don’t prosecute,” Sedita said.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com and jhabuda@buffnews.com