The Buffalo Police Department is doing a lot right in its internal investigation of the 1996 death of Mark S. Virginia in police custody. The department has examined the misuse of weapons and the need for revised policies and training. And, after reviewing the behavior of three officers involved in the violent struggle, it has lodged charges against them.
But now comes news that an independent hearing on departmental charges against the three officers could be delayed for as long as three years.
That's indefensible, no matter how big the backlog of cases may be. The death of Mark Virginia wounded a community, and the issue of police accountability deserves a faster resolution.
The administrative hearing will be before a hearing officer selected by the Police Benevolent Association and the city corporation counsel's office. Most of the other cases ahead of it in the backlog involve such things as alleged untruthfulness or insubordination. They are substantially less urgent than accusations directly connected to the death of a suspect surrounded by police after a violent struggle and lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back.
The three charged -- Lt. Gregg G. Blosat and officers Joseph W. Walters and Michael Bowen -- pleaded not guilty to those charges last March in a hearing before Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. Blosat was acquitted by a jury last February of criminal charges that he strangled Virginia, but these proceedings are separate from that court case.
Delay in resolving this case is fair to no one -- the Virginia family, the officers or the public. Whatever the role of individual officers, Buffalo police professionalism and restraint deteriorated into a brawl. City police must be trained and able to subdue struggling suspects without killing them.
Blosat is accused by the department of conduct unbecoming of an officer and making unauthorized use of a collapsible metal baton, which he denies. Bowen, among other things, faces charges of unauthorized use of sap gloves -- gloves lined with lead powder -- in the fight.
The department is examining issues related to the use of these weapons, for which the department offers no training, as well as the handling of first aid for suspects. In the Blosat trial, the defense claimed Virginia died from improper positioning in a patrol car after the fight.
Now City Hall must push the hearings for these three officers to the top of the priority list.