Buffalo reached a true milestone last week when U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin lifted a court order imposed 22 years ago to rectify a long-standing and discriminatory hiring practice in the Police Department. And best of all: Representatives from both sides of the dispute hailed the decision.
The case, which began in 1973, revolved mainly around a written test for hiring police officers. Curtin found that the test seriously disadvantaged minorities, and he was determined to develop a police force with a percentage of minority officers equal to the percentage of minorities in the city's population.
In 1978, he ordered the Police and Fire departments to desegregate. Then, 11 years later, he ruled the city had "substantially complied" with his orders. In doing so, he imposed a new "applicant-flow" process requiring each new class of police officers to include a percentage of blacks, Hispanics and women equal to the respective percentages of those groups who took the written exam. That was the order Curtin lifted last week.
The city expressed satisfaction, with its lawyer calling the decision "a prelude to the court discharging its supervision of entry-level police hiring in Buffalo."
More significantly, the lawyer for the Afro-American Police Association of Buffalo celebrated the decisions. "It's a great day for everybody," said Paul Saunders. "My clients are very pleased with the results. And we congratulate the city."
Thirty-eight years is a long time for a court case to linger, but the issue is crucial to the city. An effective Police Department has to represent all major constituent groups that it serves. Without buy-in from everyone, the perception of fairness and justice is damaged.
But that buy-in is impossible if whole groups are systematically prevented from joining the ranks.
Curtin's ruling and its acceptance by both sides of the dispute demonstrates that Buffalo has achieved something important, not just legally but ethically. It doesn't signal the end of prejudice -- that seed still grows in some human hearts -- but it documents a determination to move forward, and to keep at it until the job is finished.
In Buffalo, part of that job has been completed. It's a turning point, and one that is, indeed, worth celebrating.