Nearly two decades have passed since 17-year-old Cynthia Wiggins put one of Buffalo’s suburbs under the nation’s racial microscope.
Even now, years after the African-American high school student was killed trying to get to work at the Walden Galleria, the memory of her death and why she died remain an ugly part of Cheektowaga’s history.
It is also why the town, in the wake of Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson and New York City, has been confronting racial biases.
“That’s part of our history,” said Assistant Police Chief James Speyer. “We’re trying to start a dialogue and part of that is acknowledging we’ve made mistakes in the past, and we’re ready to improve.”
Police were not responsible for Wiggins’ death. But shortly after she was killed, it was discovered that, while charter buses from Canada were allowed to stop at the mall, buses from Buffalo had to stop across the street, forcing riders like Wiggins to cross seven lanes of traffic on Walden in order to get to the mall. Wiggins was struck and killed crossing that traffic, while heading to her job at the food court.
Twenty years ago, it would have seemed unlikely for Cheektowaga to host a workshop on biased policing or send its entire 129-member department through science-based training called “fair and impartial policing.”
But in part because of Wiggins’ death and the allegations of racism that followed and lingered for years, the town is taking steps to bridge the wide gulf of distrust in police that is prevalent in so many communities.
One of those steps puts Cheektowaga in the unusual position of doing something no other local agency is doing – embarking on a top-to-bottom training initiative based on the notion that even the best police officers have “implicit” biases.
And yet, the town’s ultimate goal is no different than any other police agency – avoid being the country’s next racial battleground.
“People need to know our police departments are changing,” said the Rev. James A. Lewis III, pastor of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church in Buffalo and a member of Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence and gang intervention group.
If you talk to people like Lewis, who doubles as a police chaplain, you’ll learn that the events in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York have put local police agencies on guard.
More than ever, they are focusing on community policing and outreach, as well as diversity and sensitivity training, as ways of maintaining and improving their relationship with minority communities.
“I think, in general, law enforcement is on high alert," said Lana Benatovich, president of the National Federation of Just Communities of Western New York. “I think everyone recognizes the divide. There’s a lack of trust, and everyone is nervous.”
In Cheektowaga, the effort to avoid becoming the next Ferguson began in earnest in late March when police officials sat down with African-American leaders and others, some of them long-time critics, to talk about how police officers can better confront their personal biases.
“It’s incredibly courageous,” Lorie Fridell, the national expert who oversaw the training in Cheektowaga, said of the town’s decision to invite community leaders. “You’re bringing in people who are not necessarily your biggest fans.”
At a time when police agencies everywhere are under increased public scrutiny, Cheektowaga is the first police force in the state to seek out Fridell, an expert on the deep-seated , unconscious biases that impact policing.
‘All humans have biases’
To hear Fridell talk, it’s those implicit, not explicit, biases that affect how all police officers interact with blacks, Hispanics and other minority communities.
“The modern science on biases tells us that all humans have biases,” said Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. “For too long, we have focused only on explicit biases."
To understand Fridell’s work, consider that age-old complaint - cops treat all blacks and Hispanics like criminals.
To make her point, Fridell, who has worked with police departments in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto, uses role-playing exercises. In one, she forces officers to examine how they would deal with two black men entering a house in a largely-white neighborhood, and then how they would handle it if the men were white.
“A lot of times, those biases are unconscious,” said Frank Mesiah, head of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP.
Mesiah said he was impressed by Fridell’s presentation and praised Cheektowaga for bringing her here and exposing their rank-and-file officers to her work. He wishes other agencies would follow suit. “There seems to be a reluctance to look at how we train our police,” he said.
No one, not even Fridell, sees her research and corresponding training as a panacea, but there are law enforcement officials who think it’s highly credible and may eventually become a staple of police training everywhere.
“I think it’s that powerful,” said Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo. “It’s probably the best training I’ve gone through in 10 years.”
Boetig said the notion that good cops can sometimes make bad mistakes is vitally important to understanding and resolving racial tensions in some communities. He also thinks it jibes with his “every encounter counts” philosophy about cops and the public.
In March, at about the same time Cheektowaga was doing its training, the local FBI sponsored “Hard Truths,” a community outreach event intended to spread the word about FBI Director James Comey’s high-profile speech on race relations at Georgetown University. Comey acknowledged the FBI’s historically rocky relationship with black leaders – the agency spent years monitoring and investigating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – and challenged his police brethren to avoid “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to bias.
Police officers often work in communities where young black men commit a disproportionate amount of the crime, and often the result is a change in how those officers, many of them “people of good will,” treat young black men who aren’t breaking the law, he said.
“Police officers have to realize that, when they’re out there in public, it’s a show,” said Boetig. “Every encounter counts.”
Boetig said he organized “Hard Truths” with the goal of listening, rather than talking, and he heard plenty from the more than 15 black leaders who met with him. Many of them were fathers who acknowledged worrying about their sons being stopped by police and admitted schooling them on what to do and not do.
“People talked from deep within their souls,” said Sharon Mentkowski, a community outreach specialist with the Buffalo FBI.
Nowhere in the region is the relationship between police and African-Americans more important than in Buffalo. And it’s no secret that, over the past few years, there have been a number of violent incidents involving police and the public, many of them caught on cellphone videos.
While none of those altercations rival what happened in Baltimore or Ferguson, there was a great deal of public outcry when John Cirulli, a white Buffalo cop, received probation after being caught on video assaulting a handcuffed suspect, John T. Willet, an African-American.
Black leaders point to Cirulli’s quick removal from the force as one example of how Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has clamped down on bad cops. They also praise his appointment of Kimberly Beaty as deputy commissioner. Beaty, an African-American and a veteran of the force, is known for her longstanding relationships with block clubs and residents and her experience as a training officer in the Buffalo Police Academy. She specialized in diversity sensitivity and how to perform traffic stops.
In some respects, Beaty’s appointment last July couldn’t have come at a better time, just months before the riots in Baltimore.
“If it happened there, it could happen here," said Lewis, pastor at Miracle Missions.
The city, according to Lewis and others, has learned from the mistakes Baltimore and others made, most notably the “militarization” of their police departments. He also credits the city with helping to establish Buffalo Peacemakers, a group that now stands ready to help law enforcement in the event of a large-scale violent outbreak.
“There is a plan in place, personnel in place and equipment in place,” police department spokesman Michael DeGeorge said of the city’s preparations. “There is also ongoing, updated and enhanced training in place.”
The Rev. James E. Giles of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries in Buffalo thinks Derenda’s department is prepared but anxious about the riots in Baltimore.
While Giles, Lewis and Mesiah are quick to praise Buffalo and Cheektowaga for the training and outreach the two departments do, they don’t see either initiative as a replacement for other reforms, including body cameras, citizen oversight and greater transparency in the reporting of excessive force incidents by police.
Giles, for example, is opposed to any type of citizen governance of the police but does favor some level of citizen oversight. “You have to have someone looking at behavior and not turning a blind eye,” he said.
Mesiah, who was at the forefront of the protests over Cynthia Wiggins 20 years ago, say there is a reluctance by many police agencies to do the difficult things like ongoing consistent training.
“Sometimes people feel threatened,” he said of local law enforcement. “Police departments are no different than any other institution.”