The Buffalo Police Department was one of only three of the nation’s 100 largest departments that went without a fatal shooting by police from the start of 2013 through 2016, according to Mapping Police Violence, an activist website that collects data on police killings nationwide.
The other two were the suburban communities of Irvine, Calif., and Plano, Texas.
The activist website also determined that Buffalo police had the sixth lowest annual “police homicide rate.” Buffalo’s rate of 0.17 per 100,000 residents compared to a national average rate nearly twice as high. Buffalo’s rate includes the two police-related deaths earlier this year.
“Buffalo Police Department killed zero civilians from 2013 to 2016, so that made it only one of three of the 100 largest cities where police did not kill any civilians over this time period,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and one of the leaders at Mapping Police Violence.
“While there may be many other ways in which residents have experienced violence at the hands of Buffalo police, what is clear is that over this time period, Buffalo Police were not killing civilians while most other cities were.”
But the two deaths this year that were not included in the study that ended in 2016 are cause for concern, Sinyangwe said.
“There have been two people already killed in encounters with Buffalo police, and so policy makers and police leadership need to look into what is happening and take action to bring those numbers down to where they have been historically,” Sinyangwe said.
Mapping Police Violence collected data on 5,289 homicides by police throughout the United States, starting Jan. 1, 2013, and ending through the end of June of this year.
Buffalo recently received national attention when CNN ran a three-part series on police shootings and devoted the final story to the Buffalo Police Department’s restraint in pulling the trigger.
“The officers of the Buffalo Police Department went more than four years and 2 million calls without a fatal shooting. What did they do right?” the story began.
Coming in a year when two men died during encounters with Buffalo officers, the CNN story rankled some local people.
Katrinna Martin Bordeaux, chairwoman of the Buffalo Black Lives Matter chapter, described the CNN story as “a whitewash.”
“My reaction is that CNN painted a picture of a Buffalo Police Department that could exist, and should exist, but does not really exist,” Bordeaux said. “I was shocked.”
Steven M. Cohen, an attorney who sometimes does battle with the Police Department, said the city too often covers up for bad officers.
“Over the years, I’ve represented many people who were shot, beaten or maced by Buffalo police officers,” Cohen said. “The department has many good officers, the vast majority are excellent officers.
"But in my opinion, they don’t do enough to weed out the few bad apples they have. They don’t provide enough training for officers on the correct use of force.”
That said, the CNN story is supported by statistics compiled and analyzed by Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative that collects data on police killings nationwide “to quantify the impact of police violence in communities.”
While the critics' voices are heard, police working Buffalo’s streets cite four reasons for the comparatively low number of fatal encounters. Restraint. Training. Respect. Luck.
Pastor James E. Giles recalls an incident at the Juneteenth Festival in 2006. A 19-year-old man fired an automatic weapon toward a crowd and then ran out of the park, gun still in hand, said Giles, president of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries.
Instead of shooting the teen, Lt. Steve Nichols chased him down and tackled him.
“I look at that Juneteenth incident, and I think the lieutenant used a lot of restraint,” Giles said. “From what we’re hearing, in a lot of other cities, that young man may have been shot in the back.
“I think there are a lot of situations that don’t get publicity where the Buffalo police have the right to use force, but didn’t use it,” said Giles, who also coordinates Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence coalition that receives city funding.
Buffalo police seized 840 guns last year, and more than halfway through 2017, they are on track to remove at least that many. Those guns increase the potential for deadly encounters.
On June 15 last year, Officer Anthony Fanara and two other officers chased a teenager who had just robbed a man at gunpoint. When Fanara tackled the 19-year-old, the teen jammed the loaded handgun against the officer’s bulletproof vest and tried to fire the gun twice, but it jammed. The teenager later gave a statement saying “he wished he’d killed the officers.”
In another community, an officer might have drawn and fired his own weapon.
Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, who also is pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, agreed with Giles that the officers restrain themselves during potentially violent situations.
“Can we do a better job? Of course we can,” Pridgen said. “But what is encouraging to me is that we have police leaders who are very responsive to issues raised in the community.”
But both ministers credit Commissioner Daniel Derenda and other department leaders who are quick to investigate and take disciplinary action when officers have resorted to violence without good reason.
“When there have been police officers who acted in a negative manner, the police commissioner has been quick to discipline them and address the problem,” he said.
Pridgen says his office receives about one call a month from a resident complaining about excessive force, and they are directed to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division or the city’s Commission on Citizens Rights.
“Less than two people a year come back feeling their concerns were not addressed,” Pridgen said.
Sometimes restraint comes from training. Sometimes from personal experience.
Officer Armonde “Moe” Badger was on the force just six months when he and other officers responded to a call of a midnight brawl involving 30 people in the Schiller Park neighborhood. When they arrived, gunfire erupted.
“As a civilian, I never dreamed I would be running toward the gunfire, but we ran toward the shots. It was ‘pow, pow, pow,’ ” he said.
As he watched another officer handcuff one of the young people involved in the fight, Badger spotted a 14-year-old armed with a large kitchen knife charging at the officer who was arresting his brother.
“Put down the knife. Put the knife down,” Badger shouted, getting louder each time he gave the command.
But Badger’s words weren’t working.
“Finally, I used my stern daddy voice when I need my kids to stop doing something immediately. I hollered, ‘Take one more step and I will shoot you,' ” he said.
It worked. The teenager dropped the knife.
“Another officer put his foot on the knife, and I told the boy, ‘Go home,’ ” Badger said.
Part of that came from training. Part of it from life experience. Badger had faced life or death situations growing up. As a teenager, he twice had stared down the barrel of a handgun. One was over a case of mistaken identity, the other over petty jealousies.
Badger’s instincts told him to keep talking to the man with the gun pointed at him, to lessen the tension and hope someone else came along. Both times the gunman fled.
So when Badger’s warning to the teen that night at Schiller at first went unheeded, he continued talking – using the techniques he had learned in the police academy.
“We’re taught to raise our voice in incremental degrees, with the goal of achieving a rapid response from whomever we’re engaging,” he said.
After being criticized for not providing ongoing training, the Police Department several months ago started a program that teaches de-escalation skills, promotes increased communications with citizens and provides insights into reducing stress associated with police work.
In recent years, the department also introduced training to assist officers in situations where they encounter mentally ill individuals.
Anthony Costantino worked as a Buffalo police officer for 35 years, eventually becoming a homicide detective. During that time on the force, he remembered the lessons his father taught him growing up on the West Side.
“I’d come home, and there would be a stranger at the table. I’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ and my father would say, ‘Never mind, he’s down on his luck,’ ” Costantino said.
So when his son, Mark, followed in his footsteps 20 years ago, Costantino offered him the same advice.
“I told him, when you talk to a defendant, or even one of the worst people you’ve ever met, you don’t speak in a condescending way. You are not better than anyone. You speak respectfully to them, and in the long run you will get more out of them and achieve your goal,” Costantino said.
Costantino is now retired from the force but works as a confidential investigator for the Erie County District Attorney. And in that office, he said he has observed his son’s work.
“I’ve seen Mark on videos when he has interviewed suspects and witnesses, and he does a really good job. He listened to what I told him.”
That could be a father’s bias. But Mark R. Costantino’s record is held up as an example to incoming city police recruits.
“When I speak at the police academy, I tell them about Mark and how for three years he led the department in arrests and did not have a single civilian complaint,” said Inspector Harold McLellan, head of the department’s internal affairs division. The younger Costantino and his partners averaged 200 to 250 arrests per year for three years, starting in 2003.
But that doesn’t mean all officers have learned Costantino’s approach. In some neighborhoods, “lack of respect” is still a concern of residents who complain of being cursed at and otherwise demeaned by police during encounters they feel should have been handled more professionally.
Costantino noted that what also contributes to respect is working with a diverse police force. When he was on patrol in the Ferry-Fillmore District, he said, his platoon was well-represented with blacks, Hispanics and female officers. That diversity, he said, provided perspectives he may not have gotten elsewhere.
Now a detective in the Sex Offense Squad, Costantino often works with teenagers who run afoul of the law. He teaches anti-crime and code of conduct classes at Buffalo public schools and community centers.
But it is the lessons he learned from his father and senior officers that stick with him.
“Those veteran officers were much more intimidating than anything I ever faced on the street, so when they spoke, you listened,” Costantino said.
He paid tribute to them by name: Lt. T.C. Smith and Officers Mark Padilla, Billy Morris and Jerry Stover.
During the last four and a half years, Buffalo police have fired their weapons nine times. Seven people were wounded, and officers twice missed.
So luck plays a part in the low incidence of fatalities.
In most situations, officers say they don’t have much time to make a life-or-death decision. That is when they face someone with a weapon who appears ready to shoot.
“When you pull a car over with a person that is known to carry guns or is a member of a violent gang, everything is running through your mind,” Officer Michael J. Acquino said.
One possibility is getting “your head blown off.”
“Every situation is different,” added his partner, Mark C. Hamilton. “The variables are so subtle. If somebody has a gun in their hand and you’re watching, you are either waiting for them to obey your command to drop it or hopefully they just throw it on their own. If they don’t, I have to react.”
He has never been shot at, but Acquino has. It happened several years ago in the Central Park neighborhood.
“I was facing a guy, and he had his hand in his coat pocket and refused to take it out. As I was chasing him, right behind him, he fired from his coat pocket. The bullet missed, and he was apprehended a short time later. I got to go home that night.”
Acquino fired his gun once during his nearly 10-year career.
“He was a 14- or 15-year-old kid. He jumped over a fence and pointed the gun at me,” he said. “I ordered him to drop it several times. As soon as I fired, he dropped the gun. I did not hit him. Knowing that I didn’t was a relief. Luckily nobody got hurt.”
Costantino had a similar experience involving a teenager with a gun.
“He took off running and we gave chase. I saw him holding what looked like a handgun, and he turned around in a vacant lot as he was running and was beginning to point the gun at us. I fired a shot and his gun went flying up in the air and he fell.
“I thought I had hit him. My heart started pounding. I had shot somebody. But luckily when I went up to him, he had tripped and fell on a rock. The best part of this is he was 15 years old, and I didn’t have to live with shooting a kid.”
With more guns than ever on the street, comes more opportunity for deadly encounters.
[Interactive map: Shootings in Buffalo in 2016]
Acquino and Hamilton have removed more than 500 guns from Buffalo streets since they became partners in 2008, more guns than any other team in the department.
Hamilton is a pastor as well as an officer. His father is a pastor and so was his grandfather. He said that when he makes an arrest, he tries to talk to the person in handcuffs.
“I say, ‘Why are you out here? Who do you live with? Do you live with both parents?’ The explanations range from troubled homes to ‘I live with my grandmother.’ Or they say, ‘I tried to get a job.’ For some, they can’t find one. For others, it’s not enough money,” he said.
Too often, a fast-food job that pays $10 an hour can’t compete with making $100 an hour on a street corner.
“When they are the victim of a homicide, we’ll go back and talk to their friends or other gang members and say, ‘See guys, we told you to get off the corner and stop selling weed. Now you’re burying one of your friends,’ ” Acquino said.
Two deadly encounters
On May 7, Buffalo’s long streak without a fatal police shooting ended in Black Rock. Officer Justin Tedesco shot and killed 26-year-old Jose Hernandez-Rossy.
Tedesco fired his gun after his partner, Joseph B. Acquino – Michael J. Acquino’s younger brother – shouted that he had been shot during a struggle inside Hernandez-Rossy’s SUV. Acquino still believes he was shot. But it is also possible that when the vehicle hit the side of a house and the air bag deployed with a bang, that it was the bag that nearly tore off Acquino’s ear.
Earlier in the year, Officers Todd C. McAlister and Nicholas J. Parisi struggled with 20-year-old Wardel D. Davis, after they spotted him coming out of a Hoyt Street house where several drug arrests had been made. The two officers previously had arrested Davis on drug charges.
After the officers handcuffed Davis, they realized he was not breathing and they attempted to revive him. Davis, who was experiencing respiratory difficulties prior to the encounter, was declared dead at Buffalo General Hospital.
The state Attorney General’s office is investigating both deaths.
Bordeaux of Black Lives Matters points to these two deadly police encounters and says all is not right with the Buffalo Police Department.
“The question I would ask about these statistics is, ‘How many fatal shootings are too many?’ ” Bordeaux said. “We’ve had two incidents this year where unarmed men died in incidents with the Buffalo Police. In the past, we had an incident in the Buffalo Police cellblock where a man was beaten, and the city refuses to release the videotape that would show how police reacted to it.”
The cellblock employee – not a police officer – pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony charge related to the beating and awaits sentencing. Two Buffalo police officers who watched the beating but took no action were brought up on disciplinary charges, suspended 30 days without pay, returned to work and face a hearing with an arbitrator.
The Buffalo News has gone to court to try to get the videotape released.
Cohen, the attorney who has handled many civil rights cases aimed at Buffalo Police, shares the same concern as Bordeaux that the city for years has not pursued accreditation from the state’s Law Enforcement Agency Accreditation Program.
The News reported last month that the Buffalo Police Department is one of 12 agencies among the state’s 50 largest police forces that is not accredited through a free state program that sets standards for police training and policies.
Police leaders say the department has started to talk with state officials about seeking accreditation.
“I’m not a cop-hater,” Cohen said. “I have represented many good officers and still do. I just believe they don’t do enough training around the issue of violence.”
Nelson S. Torre, who represents the family of Hernandez-Rossy, the man shot and killed in the Black Rock shooting, has questioned the explanations police gave for what happened on May 7. He said his own investigation and the state attorney general’s investigation into the incident are continuing.
“The shared objective of both investigations is to establish the truth about what happened,” Torre said.
Lt. Steve Nichols, the officer credited with showing restraint when capturing the Juneteenth shooter in 2006 without firing his weapon, is now a captain. He supervises 11 community policing officers who work at fostering good relations with community groups and residents.
Community policing encourages officers to get involved with the community, form bonds of respect with community leaders, and use communication skills to keep small problems from becoming big ones.
Nothing works as well as community policing to solve problems before they escalate, he says.
“When you get to know the community organizations and the people, it breaks down a lot of barriers,” Nichols said. “We tell all our officers get out of the patrol car, talk to people, get to know them. Once you know somebody, it gets a whole lot easier. There is no preconceived notion of who this police officer is or who this community member is. You know each other.”