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Rod Watson: Improve Buffalo Police by getting cops out of their cars

Memo to Interim Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood: Your constituents would like to see more of your officers, up close and personal – and more of you, too.

Ask community leaders what they want from Buffalo’s new top cop, and one phrase comes up repeatedly: Officers walking the beat.

The advice comes as Lockwood takes over from Daniel Derenda, who retired last week, in a transition occurring as the city’s crime rate has dropped. Yet the department’s homicide clearance rate remains below average, a shortcoming traceable in part to the fact that – despite some improvement – cops haven’t built strong enough bonds with residents who could provide the intel to nab thugs.

You can’t build those relationships by cruising through neighborhoods in a patrol car in what amounts to drive-by policing.

"More officers walking the beat in all communities, not just the East Side," said Murray Holman, when asked what he’d like to see from the interim commissioner.

Holman, chairman of the Stop the Violence Coalition, said walking the beat and getting to know store owners and residents would help cops "know who’s who in the neighborhood."

The Rev. Mark Blue, Buffalo NAACP president, echoed that, saying that with the fear of police nationally, "they need that engagement, that involvement" that comes from walking the beat and being "more visible in the community."

It’s also harder to dis someone you’ve developed a rapport with.

"Some of the officers may be a little disrespectful ... that’s what I get" from residents, said Leonard Lane, echoing a long-standing complaint from law-abiding citizens who say officers too often treat them as if they are the criminals.

Lane, president of FATHERS (Fathers Armed Together To Help Educate Restore and Save), said there should be more cops walking the community, "not in cars, not on bikes, boots on the ground."

But Lockwood also needs to be in the neighborhoods more, not just sending his chiefs to community meetings, Lane said. The interim commissioner needs to "listen to some of the concerns that we hear," Lane added, because secondhand information passed along by underlings may not be "expressed the way the citizens expressed it."

Lane said 25 years of community experience has taught him that "there’s nothing like firsthand information coming directly from residents."

"That would say something," he said of Lockwood taking off his uniform, donning jeans and a sweatshirt and attending neighborhood meetings.

It also would set an example in a department where activists say there are so many new cops – whose badges might go to their heads – that building stronger bonds with residents is even more crucial.

The flip side would be reinstituting the Citizens Academy to let residents see firsthand what police do and create "buy in" among the public, Holman said. There are two sides of the same coin when it comes to bridging the gap.

Relations between the department and the Buffalo Peacemakers coalition already have improved, with the member groups helping out at events like the Juneteenth Festival. Strengthening ties with individual residents on the block should be the next step.

For a new commissioner looking for better community relations, getting cops out of their cars and into conversations with people should be an obvious first move. After all, in order to effectively protect and serve, you first need to understand and relate.

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