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Buffalo Police to seek state accreditation after calls for independent scrutiny

Out of New York State's 50 largest police departments, Buffalo's is one of only 12 not accredited through a free state program that sets uniform standards.

Locally, some smaller departments have been accredited for a quarter century.

After years of calls for the Buffalo Police to be accredited by an outside agency that could provide an independent set of eyes on the department, police officials say the department has started to talk with state officials about seeking accreditation. The process, which requires police forces to prove they are meeting minimum standards, could take up to two years.

Proponents have long argued accreditation would ensure Buffalo Police have the best practices in place and officers are being trained adequately.

Late last year, a report on police and community relations by the Buffalo nonprofit Partnership for the Public Good urged the department with nearly 700 full-time uniformed officers to seek accreditation, among other measures.

And in March, a group of city residents opposed to police getting new long-range rifles appeared at a Buffalo Common Council session and called into question why the police department wasn't accredited.

"What would it look like in terms of optics if the BPD has these weapons and the BPD are not accredited?" James Lopez asked.

Police administrators at the time said that the department couldn't seek accreditation because of the police union contract: To be accredited through the state – which offers a free program – the Buffalo Police Department would have to conduct annual performance reviews of their officers.

And there's no agreement in the union contract for such evaluations. So until that matter is negotiated, the Buffalo police administrators said it couldn't even try to get accredited.

It turns out the requirement for performance evaluations can be waived for departments seeking accreditation.

The state Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Program's 17-member council, which determines if agencies can be accredited, can waive a standard if the issue falls under a collective bargaining agreement or a local law, said Hilary McGrath, manager of the state's Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Program.

After learning that the performance evaluation requirement could be waived, Buffalo police officials said last week, they have begun taking steps toward seeking accreditation.

Department officials have been in contact with the state about starting the process, said Buffalo Police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo. In the next month or two, he said, the department expects to assign someone to take charge of the accreditation process. Police brass don't expect dramatic changes in how they do police work in Buffalo.

"We believe that 80 to 90 percent of that we have done. It's a matter of formalizing the processes and getting the 10 percent in a format that we want," Rinaldo said.

Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, applauded the Buffalo Police for beginning the process.

"That is great news," he said. "It was an important recommendation from our report. We're glad to see them pursuing it. We hope it will bring some outside eyes and best practices. There's still a lot of progress that needs to be made but this is a good step in the right direction."

Setting standards

The state's accreditation program started in 1989 and set standards for everything from record keeping and storage of evidence to annual training and protocols on dealing with hate crime. The state does not require agencies to be part of it, but it does encourage participation.

It's a thorough and time-consuming undertaking, the program's officials acknowledge. Seeking accreditation for the first time can take six months to up to two years. The agencies must seek re-accreditation every five years.

Currently, 38 of the state's 50 largest law enforcement agencies are accredited. The New York City Police Department, which is by far the state's largest law enforcement agency, is not. But Albany, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers all have accredited police departments.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office is accredited, although it lost its accreditation a few years ago before it became accredited again in 2013. So is the Niagara County Sheriff's Office. Police departments in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Evans, West Seneca, the University at Buffalo campus, and both the town and city of Tonawanda are accredited by the state.

As of this spring, 150 of the state's 540 law enforcement agencies were accredited by New York, covering just shy of 60 percent of the state's law enforcement officers outside of New York City.

Accreditation helps law enforcement agencies keep up with the best practices across the country and systematically go through protocols, said professor Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer who teaches police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"There isn't a downside," O'Donnell said. "For my money, it's a way to head off foreseeable problems ... It reduces the chances of scandal and corruption."

Buffalo police frisk a University at Buffalo student in the University Heights neighborhood on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, after stopping two people with open containers of beer. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Although New York doesn't require police agencies to be accredited, Buffalo's city charter does require it.

"The commissioner of police shall seek, obtain and maintain accreditation of the department of police by an agency or organization generally recognized and accepted by law enforcement officials in New York for certifying compliance with generally accepted law enforcement training, policies and procedures and other relevant techniques and methods of operation," the charter says.

Buffalo actually did start the process of applying for accreditation in 1990, according to the state, but did not complete it.

In 1996, then-Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske announced the department would try to seek accreditation from a national agency instead, but that didn't happen.

In 2001, accreditation was among the list of recommendations on improving race relations in Buffalo by the city's Commission on Citizens' Rights and Community Relations.

This spring, after renewed calls for accreditation, police began talking with the union about permitting performance evaluations of officers.

"It does not appear at this time that we can come to an agreement on that topic," Rinaldo said.

Waivers of performance reviews are rare in the accreditation process, state officials said. Only one has been granted, and they require two-thirds of the accrediting council to agree on it. But the council can do it.

Other agencies accredited

One of the first local law enforcement agencies to be accredited by the state was the City of Tonawanda Police Department.

"Our department has been accredited since 1991," said Capt. Frederic Foels. Every five years, the department has to undergo a re-accreditation process. "They come in and look at everything you do," Foels said.

"The big thing for us is it ensures proper training," he said. "It promotes public confidence. ... It's consistent and fair and accreditation just validates everything you do in the department."

The Amherst Police Department has been accredited since 1992.

"It makes you a better police department and keeps you honest," said Amherst Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen.

Accreditation offers a sense of pride and also helps when a department is criticized. "If something bad were to happen, you can point to something that shows best practices are being followed," Cohen said.

Regardless of the waiver, Magavern of the Partnership for Public Good, thinks the department should consider giving police officer performance reviews.

"It's a basic management practice that every citizen would expect their police department would do," he said.

Requirements for police officers to spend part of their time doing community police work would also go a long way toward improving relations between the community and police, he said.

"I feel like accreditation is an important piece of the puzzle," Magavern said. "There a lot of other pieces, too."

A Buffalo police officer collects spent handgun shells at the scene of a triple shooting on Genesee Street and Eller Avenue on March 6, 2017. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

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