A year has passed since Wardel Davis died when two Buffalo police officers tried to take him into custody. Davis was unarmed.
In the year since, a second unarmed man was shot and killed while fleeing by a Buffalo police officer who mistakenly believed the man had shot his partner.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office took over the investigations of both deaths and determined that there was no evidence to file criminal charges. But the AG’s Office, which criticized how Buffalo police handled the crime scenes, did recommend changes, including:
• Seek accreditation to ensure police officers get up-to-date training and follow best practices for evidence collection and documentation.
• Consider equipping its officers with body-worn cameras and distribute Tasers more widely.
Now, with the Buffalo Police Department under spotlight and an interim police commissioner at its helm, it is taking several steps toward meeting the those recommendations.
“We accept the findings,” said Byron C. Lockwood, a 34-year veteran of the department who was named interim commissioner after Daniel Derenda abruptly retired last month. “And the recommendations.”
Lockwood on Friday said he also plans to expand the department’s community policing and will disband its controversial “Strike Force” unit.
Another investigation into Buffalo Police practices by Schneiderman’s office remains open. That review followed a complaint by Black Lives Matter Buffalo that alleged that the use of traffic checkpoints and enforcement sweeps in public housing violated the rights of citizens.
Department to test cameras
The Buffalo Police Department has already begun taking steps toward getting accredited through the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and is preparing to test several varieties of body cameras next month, Lockwood said.
As for Tasers, he’s interested but also cautious. “That’s something we’re looking into,” Lockwood said. “We’re studying it intensely. You’ve got your pros and cons.”
Right now, the Buffalo police SWAT team has Tasers, but patrol officers do not carry them.
“They’ve been effective for some situations but not effective for all,” said Capt. Jeff Rinaldo, whom Lockwood has asked to research Tasers.
One potential obstacle: Taser prongs, which deliver the shock, can’t always get through heavy winter coats.
Beyond the recommendations, Lockwood said he wants the police department to make community policing a priority.
The BPD has about a dozen police officers who are specifically assigned as “community police officers.” Lockwood wants to change that to involve all officers.
The Attorney General’s Office took over the Buffalo cases based on an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2015 that enabled the AG’s Office to act as a special prosecutor in cases involving the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of law enforcement officers.
Community activists and religious leaders across the state had lobbied Cuomo for independent investigations of such cases following highly publicized police-involved deaths of unarmed African American men.
Since then, the AG’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit has taken on 15 cases, including those of Wardel Davis, who suffered a medical event during his arrest, and Jose Hernandez-Rossy, who was shot. Eight cases have been closed without charges, but in each of those the AG’s office has released reports that detail findings and include recommendations.
"Families and communities deserve to know that there has been a fully independent investigation of their loved one’s death, and that even if the facts and/or the law do not support criminal charges, there was a full and public accounting of what we uncovered," Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg, who heads the special investigations unit, said in a statement.
Bragg's office has emphasized to the Buffalo Police Department the benefits of becoming an accredited law enforcement agency, "which would ensure that it follows appropriate standards for use of force, evidence collection and documentation, and a number of the other issues highlighted by these cases," Bragg said.
"We want cops to get out of their cars"
Activists, meanwhile, have continued their push for changes in the wake of the two Buffalo deaths.
Brenda Miller-Herndon, a community activist on the West Side of Buffalo who recently started a group called the Police Accountability Coalition, organized a protest outside police headquarters on Franklin Street on Wednesday to mark the Feb. 7 anniversary of Davis' death.
"He was friends with my son," Miller-Herndon said of Davis, who was 20 when he died. "Just a typical, knuckle-head teenager.... Full of life. Pretty much stayed out of trouble."
Miller-Herndon is disappointed that there were no charges filed in the death and is calling on Lockwood to fire the officers involved in Davis' death – Todd McAlister and Nicholas Parisi – as well as the two involved in the Hernandez-Rossy case – Justin Tedesco and Joseph Acquino. McAlister and Parisi were on paid administrative leave during the investigation and have since returned to work. Tedesco and Acquino remain on injured on duty leave.
She and other protesters also want Lockwood to take a stand against what they say are overly aggressive tactics by police and encourage more community-focused policing.
"We want cops to get out of their cars and say 'Hi. How are you doing?'" Miller-Herndon said. They also want a voice in selecting who the next commissioner will be. That decision is in the hands of Mayor Byron Brown and the Buffalo Common Council.
Anjana Malhotra, who authored a Cornell University and University at Buffalo Law School study on checkpoints and other "stop and frisk" practices by the Buffalo police, strongly criticized the AG's decisions in not seeking indictments against the officers. She raised questions about why police officers stopped Davis and Hernandez-Rossy and their decisions to use deadly force.
She was "somewhat hopeful" that the AG would take action on the Black Lives Matter complaint, which was based on her study. "The AG has been outstanding in standing up for civil and social rights of all Americans in challenging Trump's affront to the environment, women and immigrants, religious minorities. We hope the AG shows the same concern and legal initiative to protect the civil rights of Buffalo's predominantly minority residents."
Steve Cohen, a Buffalo civil rights attorney, was similarly disappointed in the lack of charges, but believes the AG's independent reviews mark a huge step forward in how police shootings and other deaths of unarmed civilians are handled.
"The attorney general is absolutely doing the right thing," Cohen said. "The creation of a special investigations unit is a beautiful thing."
Cohen heartily endorses the recommendations for body cameras. "They protect everybody," Cohen said, including police officers. "I have represented many police officers in righteous stops and if they only had a body camera, it would have exonerated them."
The next step in improving police conduct and relations with the community is to make sure whoever is the next police commissioner as well as judges are sensitive to civil rights, Cohen said.
John Curr III, the Buffalo office director of the NY Civil Liberties Union, said he wished the AG had gone further in its recommendations.
The Buffalo police need to be better trained in de-escalation and use of force, Curr said, and the department needs to encourage more community-oriented policing.
"The Buffalo Police Department has a real problem with how its perceived in the community," Curr said.
Darius Pridgen, the president of the Buffalo Common Council and pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, said he knows some people will be disappointed that no charges were filed against the police officers involved, but he said it's important that an outside agency investigated the cases.
He's strongly in favor of the recommendations the AG made, especially the use of body cameras and Tasers.
"I don't think it's something that needs years of study," said Pridgen. "It needs to happen as quickly as we can make it happen. A lot of this equipment is expensive. But so are lawsuits."