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Lockport brutality alleged

The city police chief says his 46 officers deal day-to-day with attitudes of mistrust and disrespect, and must approach city residents with a forceful attitude.

"There is a perception that we do things in excess," Chief Neil Merritt explained. "It's a common practice for the safety of officers, to approach in a certain manner. That's why police are so abrupt, not friendly.

"We see video of officers who are killed in traffic stops. The highest percentage of officers killed were real friendly and outgoing -- 'Hi, how ya doing,' and then bang. That's why we approach people [differently]."

Caution is one thing, says a growing chorus of critics of the Lockport Police Department, but excessive force is something else.

This chorus claims officers have gone too far. It is calling for more cooperation between police and city residents -- and pointing at two incidents in July in which they claim officers stepped over the line.

A resisting arrest charge July 17 against city resident Priscilla McDowell, 48, started the cries of unfair actions by police. They grew after the arrests July 31 of Susan Florer and Frank Ozimek.

The turmoil now includes legal action against the police department and an FBI probe of some of its officers.

"There's no real trust [between us] and the city and police," said Steve Huston, one of the city's best-known African-American activists.

> A disturbing pattern?

A few dozen residents gathered recently to maintain that the case under investigation is part of a pattern of excessive force being used against residents.

It's a charge that Merritt disputes.

"There is no protocol about how far you can go, if you can make the case," Merritt said. "If what [some people are saying] is true, then officers are fabricating charges and that needs to be determined by a court of law."

The only thing both sides agree on is that they don't agree -- especially concerning events on July 17 and 31.

On July 17, police were investigating a fight and found a large crowd gathered. Timothy McDowell, 27, was accused of using obscene language against an officer. He was arrested and his mother, Priscilla, was physically subdued after police said she kept yelling at officers and using obscene language. Two others, Rhiannan Renouf, 22, and her brother Raymond, 18, also were accused of yelling at police, making the crowd hostile and struggling with officers.

Although all four were charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, they say police went too far.

Timothy McDowell said the fight was over by the time officers arrived, and that police overreacted. He accused officers of coming to a scene with "an attitude" and yelling obscenities and racial slurs.

"They said ugly things to me," said Priscilla McDowell. "I always try to give them respect."

Her son said the police kicked her.

Florer recently showed pictures of herself with bruises and her friend, Ozimek, whose eye was swollen and infected from pepper spray. Both maintain the injuries came from overzealous police officers in a July 31 arrest.

Florer said it was reported that someone was driving erratically, but it wasn't them.

"With his long hair and tattoos, Frank looks very intimidating, but he didn't do anything," Florer said. "They brutally threw him down and broke a bone in his hand. They even roughed me up to put handcuffs on. It was all very unnecessary."

She said there is a sense that, "They're the police, and we have no chance to question what is going on."

Florer said they have filed a complaint and have only been told that the police are "still working on the case."

The criminal cases in both incidents are pending.

Priscilla McDowell said she was reluctant to be put in the spotlight.

"I've never been in trouble with the law," she said.

Her attorney, E. Earl Key, said McDowell had burn marks on her back that resembled a Taser gun burn and that, following her arrest, she was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat.

> Potential brutality suit

Key has filed a notice of claim against the city and the police department, serving notice that McDowell may sue, alleging police brutality.

"The police were the aggressors and manhandled her . . .," Key said. "I called the police and said, 'Let me see the Taser,' and the police said no, they wouldn't discuss it with me. They haven't tried to cooperate with me."

After complaining, McDowell said she feels as though her family is being watched and targeted by police, who now drive frequently through her neighborhood.

Lockport police have completed an investigation of the three officers involved in McDowell's arrest: Lt. Douglas Haak and patrol officers Todd Chenez and Kevin Schrader, who were on the scene of what they reported as a fight involving several people who had to be physically subdued. The use of Mace was noted in the report, but no Taser guns were reported as being used by city police.

The local investigation of the officers in the July 17 arrest is now in the hands of the FBI, which may choose to continue the investigation or return the case to local officials. Merritt has not released details of the investigation.

Key objected to the local probe. He said an objective party should have been called in from the beginning.

Meanwhile, Merritt defended his officers.

According to Merritt, "You can't be 'Mr. Rogers' out on the street when you are outnumbered 10 to 1. A few years ago there were a lot of claims of racism and they proved to be unfounded. A small segment of the community is dissatisfied. A certain percent of people are always dissatisfied, for whatever reason. We have to enforce the law, and that makes people unhappy. We are there to take their freedom away."

However, Merritt said there are consequences when an officer does something wrong.

"There just hasn't been any cases where I've seen brutality, especially racism," he said. "I just don't see it. If I did, something would be done immediately.

"I hope no man feels it is proper to use foul language, swearing or racial slurs. It is improper and not tolerated. Officers using vulgar language is not professional."

Yet several city residents told The News they have seen racism by city police first-hand.

Kathy Horton said her Gabrielle Drive neighborhood was the scene of a fight a year ago -- between white women.

"We were the only blacks and they came at us," Horton said of city police. "We were just watching and [the officer] said we were yelling and violent. We were already walking away. He notices my son [Chris Richardson] who was talking to his aunt. He said we were yelling things and violent, and my son was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"We called and tried to make a formal complaint, but we could not. We were not able to get a court transcript and no one would call me back."

> A different story

"You're afraid to make a call or they'll flip on you," said Darlene Morrison, referring to a common fear in black communities: making a complaint and then getting arrested.

Corey Voelker, who is black, said he was driving a friend home earlier this year and the police hit the lights and surrounded his car, saying, "Don't move."

"One of my headlights flipped shut and the officer pulled out a gun, ready to shoot," Voelker said. "I was already outside my car and had my hands on top of the trunk. They said someone saw people jump in my car with baseball bats. They even searched my trunk for weapons. This is the first time the cops ever stopped me."

Lenny Thomas, Lockport Octagon president, said he has good relations with police but ran into the same roadblock others had mentioned when he tried to make a complaint on behalf of his stepson.

"I said I was trying to complain about an officer and they wouldn't take it. Then the chief . . . came up and said his men were instructed not to speak to me. He has no right to tell them not to speak to citizens. People feel if they say anything to officers or at the Common Council meeting, they will be harassed. The law pertains to all in the same manner. They are harassing our children here."

"It's all about retaliation," maintained Huston, who claimed his family members felt as though they were being followed around after he complained at Common Council meetings about issues with the city.

Huston called the police department a "Good ol' boy system," short of minority workers, whose officers never return calls. He suggested the City Police Board, which oversees the police department, should have more minorities.

Thomas said a board of this type could be used to recruit more minorities to take the Lockport Police Board test, so officers could be more in tune with the community.

Merritt said the department is shorthanded and very busy. He said there would not be enough time for officers to follow people around, as some are suggesting.

He said he'd like officers to walk the neighborhood, but it's tough to do.

"We need to be dedicated to community policing," Merritt said. "Be proactive. We tell new block clubs that we have a finite number of police and rely on them to provide information."

> Attempts being made

Merritt said his department is trying to reach out to people. It is working on a Citizens Police Academy, which would allow people to go through the training, ride along and see what officers do. He said it could be a great bridge builder for people to see what officers face on a daily basis.

Last year Mark Sanders, the first black person hired by the Lockport Police Department, began work as a community policing aide.

Merritt said Sanders' skin color had nothing to do with the hire, noting he was the best person for the job, which involves reaching out to residents and trying to work with those who are dissatisfied.

Sanders said he'd like to offer dialogue groups to build relationships.

"There's a distrust being built up. There is real racial polarization in Lockport. It's not a racial hotbed, but it's just that nobody talks to each other," said Sanders.

He said there is a lot of apathy and denial, which leaves Lockport stuck.

"The majority doesn't understand the anger of the minority," he said. "I've been told that this is the type of anger that leads to riots. I'm trying to change that."

"It's tough to reach those who are dissatisfied," the chief said.

Merritt also said some people don't realize how badly police are sometimes treated.

"Instantly people stiffen up, expecting that we are looking for them to do something wrong. We would walk into a home and a little kid wants to talk and see our gun and then their parents come and say 'Don't talk to the pigs.' "

Horton said part of the problem is racial misunderstanding.

"We are different than white people," she said. "Black people are loud. We like to gather [in groups]. They just don't accept that. If we're gathering, [the police] say we're selling drugs."

Thomas said understanding is important all around.

"You have to understand the law pertains to everyone in the same manner. It's not a racial issue, but it's an economic-stature issue. We should have a board that gets together and has a say. A board that the mayor and council really takes ideas from, with suggestions by the community and for the community."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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