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AFRICAN-AMERICANS DECRY TREATMENT BY FALLS POLICE

Many black residents here are complaining how the Police Department -- or at least a sizable element within it -- treats African-Americans.

Control. Intimidation. A campaign of harassment.

Those are words many are using.

"It's not a belief, it's a fact," says Gloria Dolson, a Niagara Falls activist involved in educational and community groups. "You don't have to do anything. Just being black, especially if you're a young man, means you're going to be singled out by police as a possible criminal."

Police disagree. They said the people complaining are "fringe groups," looking to discredit the police force and blow isolated incidents out of proportion.

"There are a couple disgruntled people out there, and it's going to always be that way," said Police Superintendent Thomas C. Zwelling. "I think most of the blacks out there think we're doing a hell of a job.

"You might have 2 percent (who are dissatisfied), if you have that many," he said.

There were only 22 complaints filed against the department last year, five from minorities, said Edward P. Perlman, law adviser to the Police Department. Only one complaint has been filed by a minority against the department so far this year, against an off-duty police officer, Zwelling said.

Zwelling also cited several changes he has made in the department since he became superintendent in January 1992. Besides a new complaint procedure, police are given extra cultural sensitivity training at the police academy. And the department has worked with the Martin Luther King Institute for Non-Violence to help officers understand cultural differences.

But in the last 18 months, an increasing portion of the city's minority population has become concerned. If you're black, they say, you're a frequent target for being stopped by police in the city of 62,000, of which 20 percent are black.

For proof, they have what could be called The List: Incidents that have either been reported to police, used as the basis of lawsuits or otherwise documented by people willing to come forward.

Some of the most well-known incidents include:

Four teen-age boys were on their way home from a Police Athletic League basketball game at 9 p.m. last Aug. 5 when their car was stopped by several police cruisers. Their parents, who were following in their cars, said they watched as police from five cars leveled their service revolvers at the boys' heads and screamed conflicting commands, according to Lois Frank, whose son, Christopher Frank, 17, was driving the car.

No one was arrested, and the boys, still wearing Police Athletic League T-shirts, were released after the search.

"Some of the officers were laughing and smirking as if it were a big joke," said Mrs. Frank.

Police have said the search was an "unfortunate situation."

Perlman said police received a tip that an African-American with an automatic weapon was spotted in a car matching the description of the Frank vehicle. The car with the gun was spotted about 30 minutes before police saw the Frank vehicle in the same part of the city, according to Perlman.

When the teen-agers and their parents went to the police station to file a complaint, they were told they would be wasting their time.

Police admitted the complaint was not handled properly. Zwelling said he started a new complaint policy after the incident. But Perlman said the search took fewer than five minutes. All the officers were cordial, polite and professional, they said.

Mrs. Frank, a social worker for Family and Children's Service of Niagara Inc. who has lived on Weston Avenue with her husband for 17 years, said she has always relied on police as a backup on her job. Until recently, all her encounters with them were "positive," she said.

None of the boys in the car had ever been arrested or had any trouble with police, according to their families.

The Franks and other families whose sons were stopped that night have filed a notice of claim against the city and department, and expect to argue a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

On Dec. 30, Kwesimann Abintenya saw police ticketing and towing his car parked in a lot on Cleveland and 11th Street.

Abintenya, 45, a former Air Force Reservist, said he asked the police officer if this was city property. When he didn't get an answer, he asked for the officer's badge number.

Abintenya said the officer then gave him an angry look, so Abintenya walked nearby to his sister's house where he was staying and tried to call his councilman.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Two officers pushed his 19-year-old nephew aside when he answered the door, according to Abintenya. One officer wrestled Abintenya to the floor while he had the phone in his hand. The other officer held a can of mace. Abintenya was charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.

The police report contradicts Abintenya's version. Abintenya started yelling and swearing at police when he saw his car about to be towed, and refused to leave the scene, according to police. When police told him he was going to be arrested, Abintenya walked to a porch and kept yelling at police. He was arrested inside the house when other police arrived as back-up, according to the report.

There are other incidents, but the theme remains the same: city police -- many say the complaints seem to revolve around a small group of newer officers -- stop law-abiding minorities, treat them roughly and arrest them at the slightest provocation.

"We want this group to remember we are citizens," Mrs. Frank said. "The color of our skin does not automatically make us part of the criminal element."

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