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Editorial: Police union dispute with black officers threatens to become a safety issue

With police officers turning on each other in Buffalo, residents have been given reason to worry about whether their safety and that of six recently promoted officers is being compromised. The pettiness on display cannot help but call into question the union’s commitment to public safety, as well as its level of common sense.

The issue is tinged with questions of racism. Six African-American police officers accepted provisional promotions and say that, as a consequence, they have been ostracized by the union and their fellow officers.

It’s like fourth-graders, only with guns.

The dispute arises from whether the union instructed the officers ahead of time not to take the promotions, whether any such instruction came before the union knew the officers were all African-American and whether the union’s justification for sabotaging these officers’ careers was in any way plausible. Questions about all three issues are in play.

For the sake of public confidence, the union and the officers should sort this out immediately. In particular, they need to be concerned about the department’s reputation in the city’s minority neighborhoods, where festering doubts about its commitment to equal enforcement of the law already create divisions that hurt all concerned.

The dispute began in January, when the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association brought union charges against the six officers who accepted promotions to lieutenant and detective. The union says it had urged its members to reject the promotions because of an ongoing civil service dispute. But previously, other officers had been provisionally or temporarily promoted without the union objecting.

“You’ve got six black officers who’ve taken these provisional promotions, and now it’s the crime of the century,” said William Johnson, a 30-year veteran who was promoted to detective.

PBA President Kevin Kennedy denies any racism, saying union leaders had previously passed a resolution requiring members to reject any promotions on grounds that the department has not held a competitive civil service exam since 2012 and the existing list had expired. The union, he says, had no idea who might accept the promotions.

Two of the officers who took a promotion, Deidre Carswell and Kelly M. Craig, say Kennedy gave them his blessing, anyway. He acknowledges speaking with them, but denies telling them that taking the promotions would be all right. Craig, a 10-year veteran, says she has started to fear for her safety after she heard some officers say they would no longer back her up on the street. Would that be racism or just unionism gone mad?

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, whose leadership has been focused and strong, says he believes the department has abided by civil service law, that provisional appointments are commonplace and are not controversial.

Amidst all of this, policing is taking a hit. Buffalonians cannot be certain where the truth lies. All they know today is that new detectives and lieutenants on the force have been cut loose by their peers and they have reason to worry about how a petty argument might hurt the officers’ safety – and their own.

Fix this now.

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