By John Lipsitz and Sam Smith
About four years ago, the function of policing Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority properties was transferred by agreement from the BMHA to a housing unit of the Buffalo Police Department. The Common Council will vote in February on whether to renew the agreement. Residents and their families have voiced their concerns about police conduct in and around BMHA housing complexes. The Common Council should vote “no” until those concerns have been addressed.
Last fall, a committee of the Common Council held a public meeting about the agreement. Residents raised serious concerns about a lack of security, saying that inadequate resources and aggressive tactics left them in fear of officers as well as criminals.
The agreement between the BMHA and the Police Department states that the police captain of the housing unit will “initiate and monitor ongoing lines of communication with public housing resident leaders to effectively employ community policing concepts and to address in a timely manner the concerns raised by such leaders.” Despite this provision, little has been done to accomplish these goals.
In contrast, the Housing Unit is now located with the department’s Strike Force Unit, which targets illegal guns and drugs, and is being used in the same way as the Strike Force. Many residents report that Housing Unit officers “strike” BMHA grounds, to stop, question and arrest residents and their guests for trespass. When residents reach out to the Housing Unit for assistance, they are often told to call 911.
Many of those charges are illegitimate, have been dismissed in court and violate constitutional rights. Residents believe that the majority of trespass arrests are not a legitimate or effective use of police power. Interactions of this kind erode the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the community and keep victims and witnesses from reporting crimes, fueling a downward spiral in community-police relations.
Residents should not have to choose between paramilitary occupation and lawlessness as policing strategies. The BMHA and the Police Department must work closely with residents to explore alternative methods of security, driven by tenant ideas, national best practices and HUD recommendations to address ongoing security concerns.
The committee should recommend the Common Council not renew this agreement. Instead, it should hold the BMHA and the Police Department to their obligations, and withhold renewing the agreement until the BMHA, the police and tenants develop a security plan that engages police, security guards and resident leaders to reduce crime while building public trust.
John Lipsitz represents the Buffalo chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Sam Smith is chairman of the Jurisdiction Wide Resident Council.