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Editorial: Notable restraint in use of deadly force by Buffalo police deserves praise

At a time when police across the country seem to be using excessive force with disturbing regularity, it is worth noting the laudable record of Buffalo cops: A new report shows that police here are among the least likely in the nation to be involved in fatal shootings.

Some may say that’s a low bar for measurement and, in some ways, perhaps it is. But the fact is that Buffalo officers are showing admirable, and even courageous, restraint in situations where firing their weapons might be defensible.

The study was conducted by an activist website, Mapping Police Violence, which expressed concern over two shootings by Buffalo police that occurred this year, after the study period. They want those shootings to be examined closely, which they should be, simply as a matter of course.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that from 2013 to 2016, no civilians were killed by Buffalo police. The city was one of only three of the 100 largest cities to post that record. Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist with the organization and one of its leaders, was careful to couch that performance, noting that it doesn’t cover other possible aspects of violence by police. Still, he said that “what is clear is that over this time period, Buffalo police were not killing civilians while most other cities were.”

A case in point suggests that the department’s record is no coincidence. At the 2006 Juneteenth Festival, a 19-year-old man fired an automatic weapon toward a crowd and then ran out of the park, gun still in hand, said Pastor James E. Giles, president of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries and coordinator of Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence coalition that the city helps to fund. Rather than shoot the gunman, Lt. Steve Nichols chased and tackled him.

“I look at that Juneteenth incident, and I think the lieutenant used a lot of restraint,” Giles said. “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.”

Critics of the report worry that it whitewashes other aspects of police abuse of civilians and, of course, that is a risk. In the age of cellphone video, instances of such police misconduct have already been seen here. Police here have confiscated and attempted to confiscate cellphones on suspicion that they were used to record police misconduct.

Just this week, Buffalo police arrested one of their own. A decorated officer, Joseph R. Hassett, was charged with tripping and injuring a defendant at Central Booking. Hassett’s lawyer says his client is innocent.

So, yes, there is work to do, as there always will be. But it hurts the cause of good policing not to credit reports such as this. It is important to take note of it and to encourage police to continue along a path of restraint.

Police are necessarily empowered to use force – including deadly force, under certain circumstances – but that doesn’t mean it has to be a first resort. Other approaches may often achieve the desired result without resorting to bloodshed.

Encouraging that approach is important but not without risk. The officer who chased the Juneteenth shooter was also putting himself in danger. That’s where training and leadership have to come into play. If police fall into the trap of seeing their work as “us against them,” then the concept of protecting and serving will fast give way to a military-type occupation.

That’s dangerous. The report by Mapping Police Violence offers hope – and, more than that, evidence – that Buffalo police are working to avoid that disastrous approach to the critical work they do.

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