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Officer's house sold at auction leads to internal BPD probes, lawsuit

The house at 369 Sherman St. needed a lot of work. The roof and siding were deteriorating. The foundation walls were missing mortar and the chimney had loose bricks. Lots of windows were either broken or boarded up.

No one had lived there for years.

Mohammad Ismail bought the dilapidated house at a city auction of tax delinquent properties late last year for $14,000 with the hopes of renovating it and turning it into a home for his wife and four children who were in Brooklyn.

What he didn't know when he bought the house was that the previous owner was a Buffalo police officer. One day the former owner showed up with another police officer, and Ismail said they threatened to arrest him if he didn't leave.

The dispute has led to two internal affairs probes by the BPD and a lawsuit by Ismail against the police officers and the Buffalo Police Department.

The trouble began on April 18. After finalizing his purchase and obtaining a building permit, Ismail was working on the house when Officer Christopher Fields and a second officer, identified by police sources as Officer Debra A. Strobele, drove up in a patrol car and in uniform and told Ismail that he was trespassing. Fields said the house belonged to him and that he would put Ismail in jail if he didn't leave immediately.

When Ismail left, he went to City Hall to confirm he was indeed the rightful owner. All documents from the Buildings and Inspections Department indicated he was. The next day he filed a citizen's complaint with the Buffalo Police Department.

Records from the city's Division of Housing and Inspection obtained by The Buffalo News show Ismail owns 369 Sherman. They also show numerous code violations at the property stretching back to 2013, the year Fields took ownership of the house.

Police investigators concluded that Fields believed he was still the owner of the property when he saw Ismail there, two police sources told The Buffalo News.

Fields inherited the house from his grandmother and allegedly did not know that she owed back taxes when she died. That resulted in the auction, one of the sources said.

Ismail was working on the house again on April 23 when Strobele and a third police officer pulled up in a patrol car. Fields was not there.

The officers, both in uniform, accused Ismail of trespassing. But this time, someone who was with Ismail videotaped part of the interaction between Ismail and the officers.

Strobele is seen yelling at Ismail repeatedly throughout the video:

Strobele: "It's not your house. It is not your house."

Third officer: "No, sir. It isn't. ... He still has it."

Strobele: "He still owns it. He's in court for this house."

She asks Ismail about the new locks on the house that Fields had installed.

Ismail: "I'm telling you this is my house. They told me."

Strobele: "Get your (expletive) and get out. You take care of this on Monday. Get your (expletive) and get out. Now. Go. Goodbye. Or I'm going to take you to jail."

Ismail: "OK. I go home. No problem."

The third officer is heard trying to explain what may have happened.

Third officer: "The deeds weren't filed in the proper manner, which isn't your fault."

Ismail is heard on the video saying he is "respecting" what the officers are saying and says he will comply, but he explains that officials at City Hall told him that the house did in fact belong to him and that he should call 911 if there was another dispute.

"We are 911," Strobele says to Ismail.

Ismail submitted the video to the police.

In late August, Ismail received a letter from the Buffalo Police Department's Internal Affair Division, saying that his complaint was reviewed by Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and that "there is not sufficient evidence at this time to clearly prove your case and (Derenda) has determined the case disposition be carried as 'not sustained.' "

Fields was cleared of any wrongdoing, two sources told The News.

Mohammad Ismail unlocks the door to his home, where some windows were still boarded up in September. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

In October, Ismail received a second letter from Internal Affairs that said Derenda had "determined that there is sufficient evidence at this time to clearly prove your case and has determined the case disposition be carried as 'sustained.'" A police source said this case involved Strobele.

When an internal affairs case is sustained, actions against the officer can range from a disciplinary conference to a suspension.

The sources declined to say what the outcome of the investigation into Strobele was, but she continues to work in the Strike Force unit.

Ismail's attorney, Rafael Gomez, filed a lawsuit against the city, the police department, Fields and his unidentified partner, arguing that they deprived him of his civil and constitutional rights. The suit, filed on Sept. 11, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorneys' fees.

After the video was submitted – and since a story about the dispute appeared on WIVB in June — Ismail's attorney said his client has not had any new issues with police.

Buffalo police officials said they could not comment because it is a personnel matter. The Buffalo Police Benevolence Association did not return calls for comment. Fields and Strobele did not respond to a request for comment.

"Mr. Ismail has filed this lawsuit against the officers and the City of Buffalo because no one should live in fear of being kicked out of their home. He worked hard to save the money to buy the house and had invested a significant amount of time and resources into the rehabilitation of a property no one had cared about for years," Gomez told The News. "We as a society entrust police officers to preserve and protect our people and community. When that trust is broken, through the abuse of their authority and power, then there needs to be punishment."

The Buffalo Police Department doesn't have a policy that precludes officers from carrying out their duties if they come upon a situation that might involve them personally and requires police action.

But they're expected to exercise common sense, the sources explained.

The police sources said the department has catchall regulations that address officers who behave in a manner that could reflect poorly on the police force.

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