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Buffalo taking a bold step to diversify police force, build trust in community

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda see what has been happening in cities where police departments have made no effort to field a diverse force. In too many cases, the disconnect between police and community has fomented suspicion, violence and death.

To their great credit, Brown and Derenda are acting now to diversify the city’s Police Department, adopting a first-of-its-kind approach that could become a model for cities around the country. If it is successful, this is an effort that could pay dividends for decades to come.

The program will offer city residents “pre-employment scholarships” to Erie County’s Police Training Academy in order to better prepare them for the city’s civil service police officer exam. Brown and Derenda announced the program in the heart of the city’s African-American community with the express intent of making the department more reflective of Buffalo’s population of minorities, women and immigrants.

The point is to improve policing by building trust and empathy between officers and the people they are charged to protect. The value is in working to prevent from happening here what occurred in Ferguson, Mo., where a predominantly white police force was viewed with distrust by the city’s predominantly African-American population.

That toxic relationship became combustible last year, when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown. That Brown was later shown to have played an instigating role in his confrontation with then-Officer Darren Wilson did nothing to ease tensions in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

What is more, tensions were already high because, as a U.S. Justice Department review showed, the police department was functioning more like an occupying force in Ferguson than a protective one. The report found evidence of chronic mistreatment of African-Americans. The city became a powder keg. The confrontation between Wilson and Brown was the fuse.

That level of suspicion does not appear to have found its way into Buffalo, but the department nonetheless has trouble winning the trust of African-Americans, especially when it is looking for help after a serious crime. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the department lacks an appreciation for the facts of life in those neighborhoods, whose residents respond with a profound lack of confidence. Only about 30 percent of the department’s police officers are minority while the city is only about 46.2 percent white.

It’s not as out of balance as Ferguson is, nor should anyone want it to lean that way. With this novel program, Buffalo is working proactively not only to ward off potential conflicts, but to improve policing and, with it, the safety of officers and citizens, alike.

This is a pilot program, and it is getting underway quickly. Up to 50 people will be provided the scholarships, worth $6,800 each, and the 20-week course will begin Jan. 20. Those who graduate and pass the exam will be eligible to be hired by the Buffalo Police Department next summer.

Among those closely watching this program are the White House, the Department of Justice and the New York Conference of Mayors. If it works as Brown and Derenda hope, it could become a template for other cities around the country. That’s a feather in the city’s cap. It is setting a national example by doing the right thing.