Frustrated over frozen wages, Buffalo police officers handed out a huge number of parking tickets during the first two months of this year.
The ticketing blitz had the whole community talking. Many people were upset.
But that wasn't all city cops did during January and February.
Traffic summonses and overall arrests also were all up significantly over the same period in 2005. Driving-while-intoxicated arrests jumped by 40 percent. And the number of calls police officers responded to increased.
Regardless of the reasons behind them, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson sees the numbers as a good sign.
"Pump up the volume," Gipson said. "I want to see officers more involved and more engaged in their work. From everything I can see, that's what is happening.
"If I thought the officers were giving parking tickets and neglecting their other duties, I'd be all over them. But that isn't the case."
According to Gipson, Mayor Byron W. Brown and police union President Robert P. Meegan Jr., this is the way it's going to be in Buffalo from now on.
They say the city has begun a zero-tolerance policy on crime -- especially drug-related crimes.
The city plans to arrest more drug dealers and more drug customers. In some cases, officers will seize the cars of suburban residents who come to the city to buy crack and other drugs.
Illegal parking, DWI, speeding and other traffic infractions that many cops might have been winking at in the past no longer will be tolerated in the city, Gipson said.
"It isn't for me to say why these things weren't enforced as strongly as they could have been in the past," Gipson said. "I can only talk about what I plan to do.
"This is a new day for this department," Gipson said.
The union president agreed.
"The city has been the playground for people from the suburbs long enough," Meegan said.
The performance of police in the first two months of Brown's administration raises a number of questions:
Is it an actual law enforcement crackdown or just a temporary uptick in activity fueled by anger over the wage freeze imposed on police by the control board?
Will the crackdown end as soon as the Police Benevolent Association has its first few disagreements with the new mayor and commissioner?
Who really runs the department -- the commissioner or the union?
If city cops can pack this much work into two months, why haven't they done it before?
>Praise for police
Some city residents, like Rudolphus Boans Jr., are thrilled with what they've seen so far, especially after hearing Gipson and Brown outline their Zero Tolerance Action Plan last week.
"I hope the police keep it up, because the city needs it," said Boans, vice chairman of the city's Stop the Violence Coalition. "If you take care of the smaller things, like people gambling on street corners, you might have an effect on bigger things, like homicides. Enforcing the law on these quality-of-life crimes is long overdue."
Others, like James Ostrowski, president of the grassroots group called Free Buffalo, are skeptical. Monday, Ostrowski said he thinks the parking crackdown is already winding down.
"It's still a renegade police force," Ostrowski said. "If we have a drastic policy change like this coming from the union and rank-and-file officers, who is running the Police Department?"
Gipson said he wants police officers to use common sense and discretion in their enforcement of the law, but he wants that enforcement to be very strict when it comes to drugs and street crimes.
He said he wants officers to be much stricter than they have been in the past in enforcing traffic and parking regulations.
"There are people who want me to chastise officers for giving tickets, for doing their jobs," Gipson said. "I won't do that."
If officers were ticketing legally parked cars or illegally targeting certain people for harassment, Gipson said, "that would be different."
Exactly who started the crackdown? Finding the answer is a difficult task.
Ostrowski believes it is a union-backed protest action that will be short-lived. And he said it's wrong to let the union and cops on the street determine the city's law enforcement objectives.
Meegan said he did not start it, but he supports it. He said it all began with a few street cops, whom he would not name, and then spread like wildfire through the department.
"People keep fingering Bob Meegan and company, but the officers on the street are frustrated," Meegan said. "They've gone 20 months now without receiving a raise that was contractually agreed upon with the city."
Although the crackdown started weeks before Gipson took office on Feb. 13, he and the mayor claim it was a logical response by officers to Brown's campaign promise of "no tolerance" law enforcement.
Gipson said he and the mayor have reached out to the police union, trying to improve relations that had become testy during the administration of Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and his police commissioner, Rocco J. Diina.
"I would like to think the police officers are wildly excited about the new leadership," Brown said.
According to some officers, Gipson, a respected former street cop, has brought a new spirit of cooperation to the department.
"Bob Meegan doesn't run the department. The commissioner does," said Traffic Lt. Thomas J. Masterson, who started police work in 1963 and is the department's senior member. "The new mayor and commissioner are trying to deal fairly with [officers], and I think the guys in the street appreciate that."
Officers appreciate that Brown has tried -- unsuccessfully so far -- to lift the wage freeze imposed by the state financial control board that oversees the city's finances, Meegan said.
"The rank-and-file officers are excited about our new commissioner and mayor," said Detective Christopher R. Dates of the Northwest District. "We had poor morale under the previous administration. This is a fresh start. Hence, you're seeing some very hard work being done."
Time will tell whether the stepped-up enforcement of the past two months becomes permanent. Meanwhile, the city will have to deal with some public relations problems relating to the parking ticket blitz.
"I talk to a lot of residents and business people, and the overwhelming response I'm getting is that it's hurting people and hurting businesses," said Justin Azzarella, executive director of the not-for-profit group Forever Elmwood.
"You hear about officers waiting on side streets and then pulling people over in traffic. You hear about officers constantly ticketing cars on the same streets," Azzarella said.