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Judge ends historic desegregation case against Buffalo Police

After nearly four decades, the federal courts are ending their oversight of the Buffalo Police Department.

In a decision Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo dismissed a court order requiring the Buffalo police force to desegregate its ranks, and declared the department in compliance with the court decree.

The end of the landmark civil rights case came as lawyers for the city and U.S. Department of Justice work toward an end to the companion desegregation order against the Buffalo Fire Department.

"This is the final and complete end to the litigation," said Adam W. Perry, a lawyer for the city. "The city is in full compliance."

It was 1979 when then-U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin first ordered the desegregation of Buffalo’s police and fire departments.

The court’s oversight stemmed from a Department of Justice civil rights complaint against the city and Curtin’s eventual declaration that the departments’ hiring practices discriminated against minorities and women.

In seeking an end to those desegregation orders, lawyers for the Department of Justice and city have pointed to new hiring practices that are lawful and, over the years, have resulted in more diverse police and fire departments.

In the police case, both sides have pointed to an overall sworn workforce that is now 22 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic and 21 percent female. That compares with a sworn workforce that was 3 percent black and less than 1 percent Hispanic or female in 1978.

"We were very pleased with the cooperation of the city and its willingness to work with us and the court to accomplish an acceptable result," said Paul C. Saunders, a lawyer for the Afro-American Police Association of Buffalo, one of the groups that sued the city.

The emphasis on improving minority representation in the Police Department dates back to 1973 when the DOJ lawsuit was filed and 1979 when Curtin ordered the department to desegregate.

From the beginning, Curtin's goal was to develop a police force with a percentage of minority officers equal to the percentage of minorities in the city's population.

The result was a minority-recruitment plan that required that half of all Police Department hires be minorities and 25 percent be women. The court also required that 50 percent of all new firefighters in the city be minorities.

Over the next 10 years, the city hired hundreds of blacks, Hispanics and women and, in 1989, Curtin ruled the city had "substantially complied" with his orders. Curtin died last year.

"I know Judge Curtin was disappointed he couldn't put his name to the final settlement, but he was more than comfortable leaving it in the hands of Judge Vilardo," said William C. Schoellkopf, one of Curtin's longest-serving law clerks. "I'm confident Judge Curtin would be pleased with the results today."

In doing away with his hiring order in 1989, Curtin imposed a new "applicant-flow" process.

The new system required that each new class of police officers would include a percentage of blacks, Hispanics and women equal to the respective percentages of those groups who took the written exam.

[Judge lifts 1989 order on police hiring; ruling in Buffalo desegregation suit may point to end of Curtin's oversight]

For years, the written exam was viewed as one of the chief culprits behind the lack of diversity in the Police Department, and the city was eventually successful in creating an exam that satisfied the DOJ and Curtin.

In 2011, Curtin lifted a 22-year-old court order requiring the city to use that alternative hiring process and paved the way for the final dismissal on Thursday.

"We are pleased this matter is over and it shows the tremendous progress we've made in advancing the Buffalo Police Department to reflect the diversity of our City," Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a statement Thursday.

Perry said the final resolution came about after Vilardo encouraged the two sides to file joint status reports on the case.

"He set up a process that required we do it together," he said.

Curtin’s desegregation decrees are widely viewed as among the most important decisions of his 48 years on the bench and helped make him both a beloved and unpopular public figure for decades.

He also oversaw the desegregation of Buffalo’s public schools.

The end of the case comes as police relations with African-Americans are again in the spotlight here and across the nation.

Late last year, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman began an investigation into traffic checkpoints and enforcement sweeps by Buffalo police.

The investigation is rooted in a complaint, filed by Black Lives Matter Buffalo and other community groups, accusing the Police Department of engaging in a discriminatory policing.

State attorney general's office investigates Buffalo police checkpoints

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