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Another Voice: Police-community relations can be improved

By Sam Magavern

Improving the relationship between Buffalo’s police and residents is vital for many reasons: protecting officer and resident safety, preventing crime and reducing the alarming racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The Partnership for the Public Good recently completed a major report on this topic, titled “Collaboration, Communication and Community Building.”

The report identifies many positive steps that the city has taken. Examples include collaborating on violence prevention with Buffalo Peacekeepers, creating a language access plan to better serve refugees and immigrants and starting a scholarship program to diversify the department’s new recruits.

The report also identifies many areas for improvement. Here are three examples. The Open Buffalo survey of over 2,000 people found that only 20 percent felt that the police respected people of color, and only 27 percent felt they respected youth. Black residents get arrested for offenses like marijuana possession at rates many times higher than whites, despite similar rates of usage. The Commission on Citizens’ Rights, charged with monitoring police misconduct and training, has been largely dormant for years.

The report includes 32 recommendations for improvement, of which I will mention just six.

• The BPD should require all officers to devote a certain number of hours per week to community policing activities such as doing foot and bike patrols, attending block club meetings and mentoring youth. National experts suggest that community policing has to be part of every officer’s job, not just the purview of a small number of specialists.

• For some very minor offenses, the police should issue “fix-it” tickets, giving the person a chance to correct the problem before facing penalties. This can help reduce the disproportionate impact that arrests and fines have on people with low incomes.

• Buffalo should emulate Albany and Seattle by creating a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.  The idea behind LEAD is that certain problems, such as drug use, are better addressed with treatment and social services than with incarceration.

• The city should expand the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program and hire youth from public housing developments to work collaboratively with the police to make neighborhood improvements that enhance public safety.

• The Commission on Citizens’ Rights should become more independent and active in investigating police misconduct and training needs.

• The BPD should come into compliance with the City Charter by obtaining independent accreditation. Accreditation helps ensure that the department follows best practices. For example, the BPD has stated that it has not become accredited because it does not do performance evaluations of its officers. Accreditation is important to make sure that basic good management practices are in place.

To learn more, please read the full report at ppgbuffalo.org.

Sam Magavern is executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank uniting over 260 local organizations.

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