The death threats against Buffalo police started on social media two days ago, after fatal encounters between officers and black men occurred in Minnesota and Louisiana.
When one Buffalo police officer recognized the name of a young man who suggested shooting local police, he went to see the angry young man.
“I told him this is a ridiculous thought process,” the Buffalo officer said. “Someone not in their right mind could act on that. He was extremely apologetic. He was trying to explain what he meant. I told him these things could easily be misconstrued. He took down the post.”
But Friday was a different kind of day for police officers here and across the nation. Different than a year ago, or even earlier this week.
A sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven others in an ambush Thursday night in Dallas. Police here and all over feel like they have a target on their backs and they wonder how it got this way.
John V. Elmore is a former state trooper, prosecutor and a prominent Buffalo attorney. He is also African-American and came from humble roots in Olean, where his dad became that city’s first black firefighter. Elmore believes the tensions between police and inner-city residents are a symptom of much deeper problems beyond their control.
“People can get a quality education in suburban and private schools, and in our inner cities people often get an inferior education. I can say that. I’m a trustee at Erie Community College,” he said. “The other thing is jobs. It is not the fault of people in the inner cities that factories have closed because corporations have gone overseas for tax breaks. People are also living in rundown housing, which they don’t own. So there has to be a lot of social economic efforts put into education and job creation in the inner cities.”
If that can be addressed, Elmore said, the lives of police and residents will be all the better for it.
But on Friday in Buffalo, the immediate issue of police safety had to be addressed.
There were more social media threats calling for shooting local officers.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda responded by ordering his 700-plus officers to drive in pairs while on patrol, putting aside indefinitely one-officer cars.
While off duty, officers should not wear clothing that could identify them as police and they should carry their weapons, Derenda also told his force.
The commissioner was up until 3 a.m. Friday, watching the Dallas events unfold on television, and was in contact with Mayor Byron W. Brown throughout much of that time. They were troubled and concerned.
So are Buffalo’s police rank-and-file officers.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There are people using these police shooting incidents to let their own natural instincts come out and … they have no respect for human life,” one longtime patrol officer said.
He, like the officer who confronted the young man who posted threats on social media, asked not to be identified, because it is against department policy for officers to speak with reporters.
The local threats and the Dallas killings have put city officers on edge.
“We hope that it wouldn’t happen here,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly L. Beaty. “We have a great relationship with the community that we serve and protect. But we have to be mindful that there may be some, maybe one or a few, that may want to seek the fringe of what is occurring around our country.”
She noted that Derenda has maintained a “zero tolerance policy” of police violating the law, pointing out that several officers have been removed from the department for transgressions ranging from police brutality to illegal drugs to abuse of sick leave.
“You’ll find bad apples in every profession and they have to be discarded,” she said.
Prior to moving up in the police administration, Beaty worked for nine years as a training officer in the department’s Police Academy, where she says it was and continues to be emphasized that officers need to be respectful of citizens and at the same time take precautions for their own safety.
“We teach the tenets of community policing, which is working with neighborhoods to address crime and disorder. We teach respect in allowing others to walk away from a situation with dignity and pride. We respect the fact that the community is at the table with us. We harp on ethics and integrity, procedural justice, and that means we treat people right and fair,” she said.
Efforts to expand the number of minority members on the police force, she said, are another key to maintaining strong ties with the community.
“Our department is 30 percent minorities and 22 percent of them are African-American,” Beaty said, adding that the department has initiated a scholarship training program to further diversify its ranks.
And while Buffalo has been spared officers being gunned down as the wave of violence against police continues, a local Black Lives Matters leader said the killings in Dallas should not be a shock.
“This was coming. That’s why I have been trying to appeal to my state and county legislators to address inequities,” Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux said. “There are always excuses for the demise and maltreatment of black people in the criminal justice system, in the education system, economic disparity and inequities in goods and services.”
She cited the death of a 7-month-old girl struck and killed by a car on Moselle Street last month as her mother pushed her in a stroller on the roadway because the sidewalk was in disrepair. The response by Fillmore District Councilman David A. Franczyk was to step up police enforcement against speeders, Martin-Bordeaux said.
“That shows a disconnect between the real issue, the crumbling infrastructure,” she said. “What he’s doing is now criminalizing the people who drive through that neighborhood, instead of addressing the issue of replacing the sidewalk.”
Martin-Bordeaux compared that response to what happened when 3-year-old Maksym Sugorovskiy was killed by a car that went off the Scajaquada Expressway into Delaware Park on May 30, 2015.
“The clear inequity is when we had the incident at Delaware Park with the boy being run over. Don’t get me wrong, it was terrible. But there was immediate action within hours by slowing the traffic down to 30 mph and immediately moving to replace those guardrails. Moselle Street needs an immediate response,” she said.
Elmore, the author of a book titled “Fighting for Your Life: The African-American Criminal Justice Survival Guide,” says that rational and logical thought, rather than violence, is needed to solve the pressing social problems that have spawned bloodshed on both sides.
“Violence is the worst answer and is only going to make things worse,” he said in expressing sympathy for the families of the Dallas police. But he added, “I also feel sorry for the families of the African-Americans who have lost their lives in police custody or confrontations.”
In Buffalo, police shootings are infrequent. Two people have died in armed confrontations and two have been wounded since 2012. No officers were charged in those shootings, following reviews by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
Conversely, it is rare when an officer has been shot at, though last month a police officer returned fire when a burglary suspect shot at him. A day later, another officer discharged her weapon when a man drew his handgun on her. No injuries were reported in either incident.
Several days later, on June 15, Officer Anthony Fanara had a close call when a robbery suspect he had tackled during a foot chase pushed a loaded .45 caliber handgun into his chest and pulled on the trigger. The gun safety was on and prevented the weapon from discharging.
Those types of incidents alone are enough to put officers on heightened alert, but now with Dallas, officers say the stress is even greater as they maintain a balance for their own safety and carrying out their mission to protect city residents.
“We are really making a conscious effort to be safe and respond to calls with more than one officer,” said the patrol officer who spoke with the young man who wrote the social media post suggesting shooting police. “You never want to be in a situation where you put your own safety ahead of the public.”
Another Buffalo officer said killing police officers particularly when they have no connection to shootings elsewhere in the country is a travesty.
“They are making assumptions that every police shooting is bad. I’m not saying all shootings are justified but there are some that are justified,” the officer said. “They want the police to be guilty until proven innocent.”