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Editorial: Allegation of police bias demands thorough investigation

If what Darius Pridgen says is true – and we know of no reason to doubt him – then Buffalo police have some explaining to do. And some retraining, as well.
Pridgen, president of the Buffalo Common Council and pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, protested this week at what he saw as police restricting waterfront access to his African-American guests on Independence Day. He’s angry about that – and should be.

Pridgen says Buffalo police turned away about a quarter of his guests for a cookout at his waterfront residence near Canalside as they tried to drive down his street – and not for the first time. But what was especially galling, he said, was that guests of neighbors – people who don’t “look like him” – were allowed down the street and weren’t asked for identification as his guests were.

“Last night for me was simply about access,” Pridgen said Wednesday from his City Hall office. “I’m only looking for positive change so all people feel welcome in all parts of the city.”

The police Internal Affairs Division is investigating, said Lt. Jeff Rinaldo. He noted that traffic is a concern in the waterfront neighborhood during the fireworks display, especially on Pridgen’s street. That might be an acceptable observation if all traffic trying to use the street was similarly treated, but Pridgen says that wasn’t the case.

It wasn’t the case over the previous two years, either, Pridgen said. At each of those previous Fourth of July cookouts, guests of Pridgen have reported being turned away by police. He said he tried to avoid the problem this year by telephoning “people in power” to let them know he was having the get-together. It didn’t work, he said.

It’s impossible not to suspect discriminatory motivations in reports of such apparently overt race-based decision-making. But, giving officers the benefit of the doubt, it is important for the Internal Affairs Division and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda to investigate and get to the bottom of this event. If it is as Pridgen and his guests describe, there also must be appropriate discipline and, even more important, training to discourage such incidents in the future.

This is yet another reason for Buffalo Police to hasten the day when all of the department’s officers wear body cameras. They discourage misconduct by police and citizens, alike, while protecting officers who are falsely accused and citizens who are mistreated.

The department plans a pilot program to test the cameras, but that evaluation process should take into account the experience in other cities. That could shorten the time needed for evaluation and bring police technology into the 21st century.

The same, by the way, holds true for dashboard cameras, which are also absent in Buffalo. They should be routine, at this point.

For now, though, this is a traditional Internal Affairs investigation, but with a critical difference. Instead of the usual he said/she said dichotomy, one of the parties in this case is the president of the city’s Common Council. He has credibility and he has witnesses.

This needs to be resolved promptly and with an eye toward preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future. Everyone in Buffalo has a right to expect fair and equal treatment by the Police Department.

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