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Black officers feel 'blackballed' for taking Buffalo police promotions

Six African-American police officers who were promoted by the Buffalo Police Department earlier this year say they've been harassed and "treated like criminals" by their police union and fellow officers for accepting provisional promotions from the commissioner against their union's directive.

Officer Deidre Carswell recalled how excited and honored she felt when the administration offered her a temporary promotion to lieutenant. The police academy instructor said she was proud to participate in the promotion ceremony, attended by the mayor, police commissioner and chiefs. Since then, however, she said she and her five fellow officers have been ostracized by other union members.

"We were blackballed," she said.

In January, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association brought union charges against the six officers who accepted lieutenant and detective promotions. The union had urged its members to reject the promotions because of an ongoing civil service dispute with police administrators. Before then, other officers were provisionally or temporarily promoted without the union objecting.

"You've got six black officers who've taken these provisional promotions, and now it's the crime of the century," said William Johnson, a 30-year patrol veteran who was promoted to detective.

PBA President Kevin Kennedy said that before the city offered the latest promotions, union leaders passed a resolution stating its members must reject any offers because the department has not held a competitive civil service promotional exam since 2012 and the existing list expired last August. The union had no idea who, if anyone, would accept the promotions.

"Our position on this came out long before we knew who would be promoted," Kennedy said. "This is not a race issue, and it's insulting that they would even raise that."

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said he believes the Police Department is in compliance with civil service law and that provisional appointments are a commonplace occurrence and should not be considered controversial.

"We've done it in the past with no objections," he said.

The promotions have led to rifts within the union. Several of the promoted employees interviewed by The Buffalo News said they've faced hostility and harassment from their peers, as well as racist comments on social media.

Kelly M. Craig, a 10-year officer who was promoted to temporary patrol lieutenant, said she started to fear for her safety after she heard some officers in D District say they would no longer back her up on the street.

"We get enough hostility from the people we serve every day. We shouldn't be getting this from within our own ranks," said Craig, who is preparing for redeployment to Afghanistan next month as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.

Those who accepted the provisional or temporary appointments said they were unaware their promotions were serious union violations and were even reassured they could take the promotions. Two of the union members who accepted promotions said Kennedy personally told them they were "going to be OK" if they took the promotions. Kennedy said he told them the opposite.

The promoted officers said no PBA official reached out to them or told them not to accept the promotions until they started receiving certified letters bringing them up on union charges.

Union leaders said all the officers should have known the union was demanding its members refuse temporary or provisional promotions until Civil Service exams are held. A resolution passed by the PBA board in January was posted on the union website and bulletin boards. Text alerts were also sent to union members who signed up to receive them.

"I don't know how anybody couldn't have known about it because it was the talk of the membership during the whole first two weeks of January," Kennedy said.

The six employees who accepted promotions were called before a union tribunal this month and found guilty of violating union rules. They were told that to be in good standing with the union, they must either decline their promotions or pay the difference between their officer pay and detective or lieutenant pay as a fine to the PBA.

How dispute began

The union and police administration don't agree on much. But they do agree on three points:

  • From 2014 to 2016, the Buffalo Police Department offered temporary or provisional appointments to five officers, both black and white. The union did not object.
  • The administration wanted to promote many more officers on a provisional or temporary basis early this year so that the promotions would open up more police officer vacancies and increase the number of students who could enroll in the police academy. The union objected.
  • The administration went ahead and offered the promotions to police officers, both black and white. Roughly a dozen or more officers turned down their promotions because the union advised members not to take them. The six African-American officers accepted.

Officers Craig and Carswell were promoted to lieutenant. Officers Johnson, Jennifer Whitaker, Lance Woods and Michael Bennett were promoted to detective.

Temporary and provisional job titles are not designed to last indefinitely. Those appointed to provisional positions may only keep their positions until a civil service exam for that position is held and a new eligibility list is drawn. Those appointed to temporary job titles are typically expected to hold those titles for three to six months.

But in practice, some of these positions have been held for lengthy periods in the Buffalo Police Department. Kennedy said long, temporary appointments open the door for politicizing police jobs, which the union opposes. No one claims, however, the six promoted officers have any political connections.

Kennedy acknowledged that until late last year, the union issued no objections to temporary and provisional appointments. The union contract does not address the issue. But civil service law clearly does, he said.

"We were asleep at the wheel," Kennedy said. "That's really what happened there. There's really no excuse."

In fact, Derenda pointed out that Kennedy said in a PBA newsletter last year that the temporary promotions of three union members to captain were "in the spirit of the contract."

Kennedy said that at the time, the union had expected civil service exams to be held last summer and was disappointed when they weren't. He also said that until this year, the temporary and provisional appointments had been limited to two or three a year, not up to 10, as was most recently sought by the administration.

The administration responded that it asked for new tests before the old list expired last August, but the tests weren't available.

"I don't run civil service," Derenda said. "I don't control when the civil service holds their exams."

Race allegations

The six promoted officers said they shouldn't be punished by the union for being caught in the disagreement between the union and administration. They also doubt, given past practice, that the temporary and provisional promotions would have been blown into a big deal if the officers who took the promotions were not all African-American.

"Why would we think it would be a problem now?" Johnson said.

Kennedy estimated that a dozen or more officers who were offered the promotions declined them.

Derenda said offers were made to white and black officers.

"The black officers took the positions. The white officers declined," the police commissioner said.

The promoted officers called it wrong for the union to assume all union members were aware of the prohibition against the promotions, which the officers believe were offered legitimately by the administration.

Johnson said that even if he was aware the union had a problem with the promotion, he still would have taken it, given the history of provisional appointments in the department. The promotions, conferred through the mayor and the police commissioner, are legitimate, he said.

Carswell and Craig said they didn't realize they were breaking union rules until the day before the promotion ceremony in mid-January, when they heard rumors about the union's problem with their promotions. At that point, Carswell and Craig said they went to see Kennedy together and asked him if their promotions would be a problem.

Both women said they asked Kennedy specifically about whether they were violating union rules and whether their promotions posed a threat to their union standing and membership. Both women said Kennedy told them that this was an issue between him and the administration. Carswell and Craig said he did not tell them to reject the promotions.

"He told me, 'You'll be fine. It's OK,' " Craig said.

Carswell said she returned to Kennedy after the ceremony, held up her new badge and offered to return it if it posed a problem.

"I am willing to take this badge back upstairs," she said she told him.

She said Kennedy responded, "Deidre, don't do that. You have 20 years on the job."

She said he also told her that the promotion would help with her pension.

Kennedy confirmed the meetings took place. He acknowledged telling Carswell she had 20 years on the job and had to do what's best for her, but he said none of the other statements the two women recounted are true. He said he urged both women to reject their promotions and told them he would be the one writing up charges against them if they accepted the promotions.

"It goes against the grain of logic that I, who typed up the resolution on behalf of the membership, would go against what I typed up on paper," Kennedy said. "They called me a liar at the tribunal. They're calling me a liar to you."

The tribunal

The six officers were brought before a tribunal trial hearing at a meeting room in the Adam's Mark Hotel last week. At first, they were told they could only present their cases before the board one at a time. They refused and were eventually allowed to walk in together, though they were interviewed individually.

"We were treated like criminals," Carswell said.

Carswell, Craig and and Johnson said the head of the tribunal hearing was accusatory and threatened them with suspension and expulsion from the union, though that's not legally allowed. The members were also told they could not bring a lawyer with them to represent them but then discovered that the union had its lawyer present.

Carswell said she again asked if she could bring in a lawyer, who was waiting outside, but was refused.

At one point, Craig asked that Kennedy be brought into the tribunal to testify regarding his conversation with herself and Carswell. Craig said she was shocked when Kennedy started making statements that were different than what Craig and Carswell recounted.

The officers questioned the fairness of the hearing, pointing to the lack of any African-Americans on the union's executive committee. All of the members of the union trial board that considered the charges against them were white.

The officers said they were ultimately given the choice to give back their promotions or keep the promotions, but pay a fine to the union, which would be the difference in pay between their officer rank and detective or lieutenant rank from the time they were given their promotions to the time of the hearing. For the newly promoted detectives, the fine was $812.

Kennedy said one of the members has since paid his fine and is back in good standing with the PBA.

Carswell said her fine would amount to $3,508 and that she intends to fight the tribunal's decision.

"To me, that's extortion," she said.

The aftermath

The promoted officers said they have faced varying degrees of hostility in the workplace since accepting their promotions.

Craig, who works more closely with other officers as a patrol lieutenant, said the day after her promotion, she had respected colleagues who refused to call her "lieutenant" and informed her that the union said they don't have to take orders from her. She's concerned about her safety on the street and had to unfriend many colleagues on Facebook after reading their social media remarks.

"It's the union that created this environment," Craig said.

Kennedy said the directive was clear from the administration that union members must respect the ranks given to the newly promoted officers and that repeated messages have gone out from the union informing all of its more than 700 members to respect the ranks awarded by the administration.

Both he and Derenda said they've heard no complaints about rank-and-file members not respecting the command chain. Kennedy said he doesn't believe the promoted officers have had their authority challenged.

"I would say they're making it up," Kennedy said. "If that was going on, this commissioner would be bringing them up on charges."

The officers have filed complaints with the Public Employment Relations Board and the New York State Division of Human Rights.

Johnson, who was promoted to detective, said everyone needs to be reminded that their positions are temporary.

"These jobs aren't gimmes," he said. "You still have to take the exam."

Civil service rules also require that permanent promotions be given to someone who ranks within the top three scorers. Carswell pointed out that Kennedy ranks high on the detective list that just expired. She questions whether Kennedy's objection is self-serving.

"That really had nothing to do with it," Kennedy responded. "There were 10 people on the lieutenants list that were never promoted either."

Officers who decided to keep their temporary promotions but refused to pay the fee imposed by the union remain in bad standing with the PBA. They are still covered by the contract, entitled to union representation, raises and benefits, Kennedy said. But they are excluded from social events, may not attend meetings or cast a vote, and have limited access to the union's legal defense fund.

New civil service exams have been scheduled recently for the ranks of detective, detective sergeant, captain and inspector, he said. The exam for lieutenants has not yet been announced.

"The only way to be fair about this is to have these exams and let the chips fall where they may," Kennedy said.

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