It’s good news for all that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office is investigating police use of traffic checkpoints in Buffalo and enforcement sweeps in public housing. Police may not like it at first, but once complete, the boundaries and rules should be clear to all.
The first thing to note is that such police activities are not unusual. To be constitutional, though, they must be conducted in a way that doesn’t stray into unequal enforcement or that violates due process rights.
Members of Black Lives Matter Buffalo and other groups have complained to Schneiderman that city police engage in a “repeated, persistent and widespread pattern of unconstitutional policing,” aimed at racial minorities. They based their complaint on a two-year study by the University at Buffalo and Cornell University law schools.
Police officials and Mayor Byron W. Brown say through a spokesman that it isn’t the case.
It is surely true, as some Common Council members have said, that many of their constituents value police attention in their neighborhoods. Officers do essential work that all residents must rely upon.
But there are rules to follow and the universities’ report raises some red flags. For example, it reported that between 2006 and 2015, African-Americans in Buffalo were seven times more likely to be arrested than whites for misdemeanor marijuana possession. There may be legitimate reasons for that, but the disparity raises questions.
The complaint to Schneiderman goes further, alleging that Brown and police are responsible for such policies as routine, unjustified pedestrian stops and arrests made without reasonable cause. It also claims documented beatings of unarmed minorities by police.
Those allegations go to the core of policing. Schneiderman needs to determine if Buffalo police are going out of bounds and, if so, how to fix that problem while still performing their essential duties.