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Consent decree forced positive changes on Niagara Falls Police Department

NIAGARA FALLS – While much of the nation has been in a tug-of-war between police and minority communities, the Niagara Falls Police Department has seen a turnaround that has become a model for other cities.

The reason?

In a consent agreement with the state in 2010, the city agreed to changes in use of force policies and procedures. The agreement also led to a communication between the community and the police department, said E. Bryan DalPorto, the city’s superintendent of police.

The original three-year decree started under former Superintendent John R. Chella, but was extended two years in order to come into compliance. On Monday the state attorney general determined that the City had complied with the order for additional training, use of force oversight and procedures, and community relations.

DalPorto said in the past three years, since he has been chief, the department has made great strides.

He said there has been a decrease in crime in all three of those years and with the policies in place they have had minimal citizens complaints.

“We’ve come a long way in the department and now we really are a leader in how policing should be conducted,” said DalPorto.

This past year, triggered by shootings that led to riots in Ferguson, Mo.; New York and Baltimore, the “President’s Recommendations for 21st Century Policing” specifically addressed use of force and building bridges between communities and law enforcement.

DalPorto said the department had already complied with 63 of the more than 70 recommendations on the list.

“We’re way ahead of the curve for professional policing for the 21st century and we do get solicited from agencies all over the country looking for sample policies and procedures,” said DalPorto.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster commended DalPorto and his staff “for their hard work and diligence” working with an independent auditor and the Attorney General’s office in order to come into compliance with the terms of the Order.

In a statement Dyster said they had achieved a change in culture within the Niagara Falls Police Department,

That was not the case five years ago, when dozens of excessive use of force charges had been lodged against the department. It led the state attorney general to step in and force the department to change its operations.

According to the state order there had been charges of racial discrimination, complaints from residents, as well as personnel evaluations of some officers who had used force more than five times in a single year.

The consent decree ordered the city to hire, at its own expense, an independent auditor who reported to the attorney general and amend its use of force policies and reporting procedures. Use of force training was put into place, which included training on how to de-escalate a situation orally, rather than with force.

Community relations also was part of the “new” Niagara Falls Police Department and DalPorto said this openness has led to more support for the department in the community, rather than the antagonistic stance other police departments are currently facing.

“We’ve really enhanced our community relations division, to really reach out to the public and we’ve won some national awards,” DalPorto said.

He said the department was a leader in the movement to bring body cameras to officers and noted that by addressing concerns they’ve seen crime go down and support go up.

“We’ve really made a great effort to get to the bottom of citizens’ complaints,” DalPorto said, noting that they have boxes around the city to take comments or complaints. “No complaint goes unaddressed.”

Ironically making it easier to complain has actually decreased the number of complaints the department receives, he said, but this action also allows it to address things before they get out of hand.

The city recently settled a five-year-old police brutality case in federal court, although it was not one of the cases that led to the consent decree.

The city admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to a settlement of $350,000 with Jaquinda Coleman, who claimed police brutality when her skull was fractured in an arrest on Feb. 24, 2008. She had been seeking $4.5 million.