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Sean Kirst: George Arthur says AG should have faced public over Wardel Davis death

George Arthur was thinking Thursday about a police officer he knew as a kid, an officer everyone called "Red the Peanut Man." Arthur described him as a classic beat cop. He was stationed out of Buffalo's old Precinct Four, and he would walk every day – in rain, sun or snow – along what was the commercial heart of William Street.

"Everyone knew Red," Arthur said. It turns out that Red's night job involved selling peanuts, and the beat provided a perfect way of doing two things at once. He'd say hello to everyday merchants and customers. He'd hear their stories and their worries. He'd speak with grandmothers buying groceries and barbers cutting hair.

Then he'd check to see if he needed to fill peanut machines in those businesses, a task he'd perform once he was off the beat at night.

The story was light, faraway, but Arthur told it for a deadly serious reason.

At 84, he's become an iconic figure in Buffalo, a living participant in civic history. As an African-American groundbreaker in city politics, Arthur played a key role in desegregating Buffalo's schools.

He's a former Common Council president and mayoral candidate who's spent more than 50 years in public service, a guy who was part of the group that greeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before a 1967 speech at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Over the last few days, Arthur's watched with a lifetime's worth of sadness as a ruling by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reignited simmering divisions in the city. Investigators for the attorney general determined that city police officers Todd C. McAlister and Nicholas J. Parisi shouldn't face charges in the death last February of Wardel Davis, 20, on Hoyt Street.

Schneiderman's office concluded Davis stopped breathing due to an acute asthma attack, exacerbated by physical exertion while police tried to handcuff him. The decision, released Wednesday with documents laying out the investigation, caused many advocates for the officers to say the ruling affirmed their actions. Many others – particularly within the African-American community – reacted with grief or suspicion.

Within hours of that announcement, in bitter temperatures, 50 picketers showed up at the Buffalo Police Department headquarters, protesting and raising questions about the case.

Arthur, whose political experience goes back to the early 1960s, said it was a mistake for Schneiderman to make such a volatile announcement from Albany. "One thing I learned," Arthur said, "is that you can't resolve a problem unless you bring people together and give them a chance to talk."

That's a choice public officials need to make, Arthur said, even when they know constituents will passionately challenge their positions.

"If you just sit back and let them cuss you out at first," he said, "they'll usually calm down and then you can all talk."

The attorney general should have come to Buffalo and broken the news publicly, Arthur said. There should have been an open forum in which Schneiderman or his staff could respond to the many spontaneous questions asked about the investigation.

It would have relieved tension, Arthur said, instead of amplifying it.

Under a 2015 order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Schneiderman is charged with serving as a special investigator in any civilian death involving law enforcement. A spokesperson said the Attorney General's office has followed the same procedure in seven investigations over that time.

Officers demanded to be interviewed together in Wardel Davis probe

In response to Arthur's concerns, Executive Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg, chief of special investigations and prosecutions, released a statement Friday that spoke of an "unprecedented level of transparency" in the process.

“Our first priority is providing answers to the family. After meeting with the family to share the investigation’s findings, walk them through the available evidence, and answer their questions, we release a comprehensive report detailing every facet of our investigation," Bragg said.

"In this case, as in most others, we believed that the best way to provide a full and unvarnished accounting of Mr. Davis’s tragic death was to allow our report to speak for itself," he concluded.

To Arthur, the problem is exactly what happened this week, when a roiling community was left with nowhere to go, on one side or the other, with questions about procedure.

As for his tale about Red the Peanut Man, Arthur was making a point. Technology may have brought the world closer, but he said it also has an isolating effect. When he was young, officers like Red were typically on foot – by necessity - in all city neighborhoods, and that proximity meant everyday men and women were more likely to trust the police with their concerns.

Now, Arthur said, we live in a world of specialized patrol vehicles and lightning-fast digital communication and street corner cameras that can scan a neighborhood. While there may be 21st century investigative advantages to that approach, Arthur said, it can build a higher wall between officers and the residents they serve, at the expense of the  familiar comfort he used to value.

"There's more and more mechanization," he said, "and the more there is, the more separation (there is) between the police and the community. Then an incident like this happens, and it further divides everyone."

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At 84, he spoke of how he's watched Buffalo's economic condition go "from bad to worse and now better, and it ought to be the same with the police and the neighborhoods. There ought to be a way to bring them together."

He agrees with Schneiderman's recommendation that police should wear body cameras, a program expected to begin on a pilot basis in January. Arthur said he takes that position based on a long connection with law enforcement. He said his great-uncle, George Sarsnett, was the first black officer in Buffalo history.

Over Arthur's career, he grew accustomed to working with "a hell of a lot of good cops," officers who went out every day and quietly did thankless jobs.

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At a time of suspicion and tension, Arthur said, body cameras would protect both officers and civilians. They provide a much easier way of reviewing incidents that often come back to acrimonious parsing of accounts. In the death of Davis, as Arthur pointed out, there was no video of the encounter.

Arthur still serves as secretary of the governance committee for Buffalo's Fiscal Stability board, a "carryover" seat he intends to officially give up at some point in the new year. That will put him in true retirement from public service for the first time since he was a young Democratic committeeman, more than a half-century ago.

He was born in 1933 into an America where many professions and opportunities were essentially closed to African-Americans. Arthur has witnessed extraordinary changes, progress he could not have envisioned as a child.

Yet he has also seen a calcification of poverty and despair in broad sections of his hometown, a heartbreaking and suffocating reality in which law enforcement and the schools become points of contact – and sometimes conflict – between two different worlds.

As well as anyone in Buffalo, he understands the idea of the long game, and he speaks of hope – but only if intertwined with patient, relentless, empathetic work.

"You've got to be optimistic," he said. "I still believe we can resolve these problems collectively, that it's what we've got to do in the City of Good Neighbors."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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