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Buffalo police commissioner retires after serving 'the community I love'

Daniel Derenda, who earned a reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian when it came to police misconduct, retired Tuesday after seven years as Buffalo police commissioner.

Derenda rose from street cop to detective sergeant and then deputy commissioner to commissioner during his 32 years in the Buffalo Police Department. He heard criticism for not having a college degree when Mayor Byron W. Brown appointed him police commissioner in 2010.

But what Derenda lacked in higher education, he made up for in street smarts gained from years of working in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, said former U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.

Derenda also showed little tolerance for anyone who tarnished the badge, the prosecutor said.

"What set Dan Derenda apart was his enforcement of the law both outside and within his own organization," Hochul said.

Derenda's cooperation with the U.S. Attorney's Office extended to going after officers who committed acts of police brutality, an officer running a large-scale marijuana-growing operation and those who abused long-term sick leave for duty-related injuries.

"The cooperation between Buffalo police led by Commissioner Derenda and federal law enforcement authorities represented the golden age of crime fighting for this region," Hochul said. "In my nearly 30 years as a federal prosecutor, he represents one of the finest officers I have ever known."

Derenda was quick to point out that bad officers were few in number and the majority on the force were honest and hardworking.

The number of injured-on-duty cases dropped from about 125 to fewer than 30 after a couple of officers were brought up on criminal charges for abusing the benefit.

"It was a dramatic reduction," Brown said.

Derenda leaves with overall crime statistics at historic lows and ongoing efforts to make the force more accountable. Officers will soon start wearing body cameras in a pilot program. Also, efforts have begun to seek department accreditation from the state.

The Buffalo Police Department was one of only three of the nation’s 100 largest departments that went without a fatal shooting by police from the start of 2013 through 2016. But the deaths of two suspects last year during separate police-involved incidents raised concerns from some in the community.

And the Police Department's homicide clearance rate remains below the national average as detectives continue to struggle to gain cooperation from witnesses in gang and drug homicide cases.

The mayor cited a 40 percent reduction in overall crime since 2006, and also pointed to the recent start of a hiring program to further diversify the ranks of the police force. He also said Derenda took steps to improve police relations with the community.

"Commissioner Derenda served our police department and city extremely well with his leadership, and he will be missed," Brown said.

'Privilege to serve'

Derenda said he is proud of the continued reduction in violent crimes and property thefts, and he credits Brown and police officers.

"Buffalo is a safer place thanks to the hard work of police officers and the resources provided by Mayor Brown," Derenda said. "He always gave us the resources to get the job done."

Married and the father of two children, Derenda says one of the proudest days of his life was when he took the oath of office to become a police officer in March 1986.

Derenda, 58, said he has received private-sector job offers in recent years, but he declined them because he enjoyed the challenges of leading the 800-member police force.

"I wanted to stay until I had 32 years on and decided about six months ago to retire after the first of the year, but I do not think I will ever fully retire," he said. "I'm exploring several options at this time and expect that I will be back to work in the very near future."

Would he consider returning to police work?

"Never say never," Derenda said.

Brown announced overnight that Byron C. Lockwood, the first deputy police commissioner, would succeed Derenda as police commissioner.

Byron Lockwood appointed Buffalo police commissioner

 

Moving up

After working on Brown's first mayoral campaign more than 12 years ago — advising the then-candidate on law enforcement issues — Derenda was elevated from the rank of detective sergeant to deputy police commissioner.

Four years later, the mayor replaced H. McCarthy Gipson, the city's first black police commissioner, with Derenda. As commissioner, Derenda sought to prove to his critics that a street cop with a healthy dose of common sense and a high school degree could succeed in leading a big city police department.

He increased community meetings between police supervisors and the public. He encouraged officers to foster improved relations with citizens while out on patrol. When noteworthy arrests were made, Derenda lavished praise on the officers.

Brown pointed out that Derenda welcomed city funding of a citizens group known as the Buffalo Peacemakers. The organization works closely with police to prevent street violence and keep lines of communication open during protests to stop them from spiraling out of control.

Derenda also forged collaborations with other area law enforcement agencies to go after violent street gangs and drug dealers. Rather than competing with the other agencies, he said he saw the benefit in bringing resources together.

It became routine for federal agents, state police and city detectives to build far-reaching criminal cases against street gangs responsible for selling drugs, killing rivals and putting innocent citizens in harm's way.

Derenda expanded the Internal Affairs unit, which investigates complaints against officers. He established a satellite office at City Hall to make it easier for citizens to file complaints — in case they felt uncomfortable going to headquarters.

A different style

Derenda often arrived at Police Headquarters in blue jeans, a sports shirt and sneakers. He appeared more like a detective ready to take on a big case than a police executive administering a large department.

But he quickly changed into his uniform, with its four gold stars signifying his post as the city's top cop, when conducting police business that put him in the public eye.

Often working seven days a week and rarely taking vacations, Derenda began each day with a stop at the state-operated Erie Crime Analysis Center in Police Headquarters to review the latest crime statistics, trends and patterns.

That information, he said, helped guide his decisions on how to allocate department resources. For example, a spike in crime in a particular neighborhood often resulted in additional members of the department's Strike Force sent to patrol those streets.

Trying times

Residents in other big cities across the nation experienced deadly encounters with police that grabbed headlines and calls for reforms. Buffalo for several years was spared these deadly incidents. But in 2017, that changed.

Last year, there were two police in-custody deaths. One involved Wardel Davis, 20, an unarmed African-American. Davis died last February from an acute asthma attack worsened by physical exertion during a struggle with the officers attempting to arrest him on the West Side. An independent review by the state Attorney General's Office determined the two officers involved would not be criminally charged.

AG's Wardel Davis probe clears officers, faults lack of body cams

The second death remains under review by the Attorney General's Office. That case involves an officer who fatally shot Jose Hernandez-Rossy last May in Black Rock. The shooting occurred as Hernandez-Rossy fled from the officer and his partner, who had nearly lost an ear during an incident involving the suspect.

Wounded Buffalo cop thought he felt gun in suspect's pocket

Derenda also dealt with a police officer's on-duty death.

Officer Craig E. Lehner died during an Oct. 13 diving practice conducted by the department's underwater recovery team in the Niagara River at the Bird Island Pier. Five days later, the 34-year-old Lehner's body was recovered near the International Railway Bridge.

Derenda personally knew the dangers of police work.

In 1990, he encountered a cop's nightmare. Twice in a month, he found himself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun at point-black range. And twice, no shots were fired and the incidents ended in arrests.

In a story at the time, Derenda said he and fellow officer Anthony Barba, now the Northwest District's chief, had no ambition to become lieutenants or captains.

"We just want to work the street because we enjoy it. We just want to make detective," Derenda said at the time.

In 1996, he was promoted to detective and not long after that he was the subject of another news story. He and Detective Michael Aquino arrested a suspect believed to be responsible for more than a dozen food store robberies in North Buffalo.

Derenda, who went on to work as a narcotics and homicide detective, came up with the strategy of hiding out in the rear refrigerated section of a 7-Eleven. When the suspect entered the store and began the holdup, the detectives burst out and arrested him.

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