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Black Lives Matter lawsuit against Buffalo Police alleges discrimination

Black Lives Matter-Buffalo and a coalition of Buffalo residents announced Tuesday that they have filed a federal lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department alleging racial discrimination.

They are also asking the state attorney general to investigate the police department, accusing the agency of engaging in a "repeated, persistent and widespread pattern of unconstitutional policing" that targets people of color, in a letter to that office.

The groups asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate the police department in a separate complaint that accuses Buffalo police of discriminating against people of color through enforcement policies — particularly "zero tolerance" campaigns announced in 2006 and 2012.

Anji Malhotra, co-author of a study released by the University at Buffalo and Cornell law schools based on two years of research into Buffalo Police Department policing practices, joined other activists Tuesday on the steps of City Hall to call for action to be taken against what they called discriminatory policing practices.

"In our study, we have found that since 2006, when the city … adopted a broken windows/zero tolerance policing policy. That policy is really meant only zero tolerance for people of color in the City of Buffalo. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to everyone, equally, that one has a right to be free of unreasonable seizures," Malhotra said.

"BPD does not get to choose, based on race, who gets that guarantee," she said.

Malhotra, along with current and former UB law students who worked on the study, said, as the study specified, that their "data establishes clear racial disparities adversely impacting African-Americans and Latinos — and sharp increases in these disparities as Buffalo has moved further towards its most recent urban renewal program."

A spokesman for Buffalo Police and Mayor Byron W. Brown said the allegations are false.

"The city has not seen the claim, but any allegation of discrimination is completely false," said Michael J. DeGeorge, the police and mayoral spokesman.

The lawsuit and complaint are based on the two-year study, culled from police data by faculty and students at the two law schools.

Called "Authority without Accountability," the study found that:

  • By 2014, African-Americans in the City of Buffalo were five times more likely to be arrested (up from 4.25 in 2010) and 14 times more likely to be detained (up from nearly 11 times in 2010) than similarly situated whites.
  • Between 2006 and 2015, African-Americans in Buffalo were seven times more likely to be arrested than whites for misdemeanor marijuana possession (up from four times from 1996-2005).
  • Latinos, who had about the same arrest rate as whites from 1996-2005, are now more than twice as likely to be arrested for the lowest level misdemeanor marijuana possession.
  • From 2013-2015, African-Americans accounted for 81 percent of all lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests, even though surveys consistently show that whites use marijuana as much or more than blacks.
  • In just two years following the implementation of daily Strike Force checkpoints in 2013, the Buffalo Police Department issued 25,000 more traffic tickets than the previous two years (2011-2012). The number grew from 40,761 to 65,862, a 62 percent increase.

The complaint accuses Buffalo police officers, at the direction of Mayor Brown, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and officials at Buffalo Municipal Housing Administration of:

  • Stopping vehicles at checkpoints and conducting searches in housing projects without reasonable suspicion.
  • Routine, unjustified pedestrian stops and arrests made without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • Systematic and persistent excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, including documented law enforcement beatings of unarmed minorities.
  • Racial profiling, targeting and disparities resulting in part from intentional racial bias in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Activists on Tuesday alleged the Buffalo Police Department has engaged in retaliation against residents who have spoken out against the establishment of police checkpoints in their neighborhoods.

The basis of the federal lawsuit against the police department is the allegation it violated the rights of Doretha Franklin, an East Side resident who spoke out against the checkpoints in a TV news interview.

"It was just for really silly things that they had no right coming on my property. Everybody knows that if you come on the property, you should have a warrant," said Franklin, who attended the news conference.

"I should be able to speak out for whatever injustices there (are), but like you can't, because if you do, things like this happen," she said.

"The checkpoints are, one, very annoying; two, unjust," Franklin said. "They violate your Fourteenth Amendment rights. At the end of the day, we, as citizens, should be able to roam around freely. We're not. At every corner, there's a checkpoint. If I went down Broadway, there's like six checkpoints."

"This is ridiculous," Franklin said.

Malhotra said the Buffalo Police Department in 2006 began a campaign of checkpoints in mostly African-American and Latino neighborhoods, along with broad trespass sweeps that were not based in any legal suspicions in Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority buildings where the majority of tenants were African-American.

"Essentially, the city took a page from (former New York City Mayor) Rudolph Guiliani's broken windows campaign in New York City ... They didn't just take a page. They took actual techniques that have been held as unconstitutional and started implementing them with impunity, top-down in a systematic, coordinated program of suspicion-less stops that target predominantly only minorities in this city," Malhotra said.

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