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Rod Watson: You want better policing? Start asking the policed

Rod Watson

Given the focus on policing here and nationally, you’d think departments wanting to stay out of the cross hairs would fall all over themselves to respond when the New York Civil Liberties Union tried to find out how open and transparent they are.

You’d be wrong.

And if the NYCLU had to go to court to get basic information – as it did with the Buffalo Police Department – what chance do average citizens have?

That is the bottom line of "Taking Cover," the NYCLU report on how police across the state resist transparency.

The Buffalo department was one of only two out of 23 the organization had to sue to win some modicum of compliance with basic Freedom of Information Law requests, a fact that local Director John A. Curr III calls "very telling."

The lawsuit was filed after a year of back and forth in which the department released some records, withheld others, and never explained which records were in response to which specific requests, said Bobby Hodgson, NYCLU staff attorney. Once the suit was filed and city lawyers got involved, the department was more forthcoming and the suit was dropped.

But the takeaway from Buffalo was disturbing: a lack of responsiveness, a lack of good record-keeping, and too much redaction of pertinent data.

Not that Buffalo was alone, or even the worst. It was in the middle of the pack in terms of timely responses, and Hodgson said it keeps demographic data that many departments don’t.

Still, the report comes amid an increased focus on how Buffalo polices its citizens, including a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month alleging discriminatory policing patterns that target African-Americans and Hispanics through checkpoints, illegal stops and searches without legal justification. It also comes amid anger over the fact that the biannual meeting of the Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee – the only real civilian oversight of the department – was canceled in July. (It has since been rescheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday.)

What makes this such a vexing issue is that crime is not evenly dispersed; some neighborhoods have more than others and those residents deserve protection. But that cannot be an excuse for carte blanche tactics that ignore due process and respect for residents.

And who better to decide how to strike that balance than the law-abiding citizens caught in the middle?

While the NYCLU report makes several recommendations, what is needed more than anything is some form of citizen advisory board that meets regularly with police officials to guide policing for the benefit of those who are paying for it.

Fortunately, that may be about to happen. Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, chairman of the Police Oversight Committee, just met with good-government organizations who are proposing just such a citizens panel under the auspices of the committee. The group would lend its expertise in fashioning programs that strike the balance between active law enforcement and respect for citizen rights.

Rivera’s next step is to meet with police brass and try to get them to buy in. That should not be hard. Civilian review in one form or another has been talked about in Buffalo for decades but never implemented. That failure speaks for itself, in every lawsuit and every report like the one just issued by the NYCLU.

It’s time to change the conversation by bringing citizen voices to the table.


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