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Editorial: Outgoing Buffalo police commissioner was a very good cop

It wasn’t an easy start for Daniel Derenda when he was named Buffalo police commissioner in 2010. Critics complained he lacked a college degree. But with his retirement eight years later, it’s clear that this former street cop was up to the task. He leaves the department better than he found it.

Derenda, 58, called it a career on Tuesday after 32 years as a policeman in Buffalo. He loved the job, so much that he couldn’t tolerate anyone dishonoring it, including officers who cheated it or abused their authority. It was a high standard, and one that needs to be upheld as Mayor Byron W. Brown considers whom to name as Derenda’s permanent successor.

Plain and simple, Derenda was a lawman. As retired federal prosecutor William J. Hochul Jr. observed, one particular quality set Derenda apart as commissioner: “his enforcement of the law both outside and within his own organization.” If it sounds commonplace, it’s not. Consider the matter of officers who abused long-term sick leave for injuries related to the job.

About 125 officers were on injured-on-duty status before Derenda acted. After a couple of officers were brought up on criminal charges for abusing the benefit, the number fell to less than 30. Police officers who are injured while performing what can be dangerous duties absolutely deserve the public’s generous consideration; those who abuse it, though, tarnish the reputation of the truly injured cops while stealing from taxpayers. Derenda saw to it that the problem was brought under control.

Similarly, and more importantly, he had no tolerance for cops who abuse their badges, whether through acts of brutality or a belief that the laws – such as running a large-scale marijuana-growing business – didn’t apply to them. Derenda wouldn’t put up with it.

In that, he recognized that while general respect for police may be a given for most citizens, it can easily be forfeited because of the misconduct of individual cops. If anything, law enforcement officers – authorized to use force and to deprive others of their liberty – need to be held to a higher standard than civilians.

Appropriate use of authority became an increasingly urgent matter as technology changed the balance of power between citizens and all authorities. The prevalence of video cameras and the ability to quickly disseminate those images made it easy for citizens to record police activity, good or bad. And citizens did, around the nation, including Buffalo. Some of it was disturbing.

To his great credit, Derenda never flinched from that stressful reality. Instead, he defended the right of citizens to use cameras in public settings. It was not only the appropriate response legally, it was the one that would best help police adjust to a changing world and, with it, improve policing, itself.

Similarly, under his leadership, the department is moving toward using police body cameras. That policy will protect good officers who, as Derenda says, comprise most of the force, while also helping to shield citizens from bad cops. He also began the process of winning accreditation from the state. In that, he was late, but at least it’s underway.

There is work for his successor. While crime is down 40 percent since 2006, the department’s homicide clearance rate is below the national average. That requires more effort at forging better relationships, especially in communities that suffer from gang and drug violence.

Mayor Byron W. Brown has named Derenda’s deputy commissioner, Byron C. Lockwood, as interim commissioner as he searches for Derenda’s permanent successor. Lockwood seems to have the inside track for the position, but whoever it is needs to build on his predecessor’s record for improving the department through better policing, including an intolerance for misconduct.

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