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Editorial: Connecting cops to community

The Buffalo Police Department’s Strike Force initiative was well-intentioned, but it didn’t work out as planned. Now, the department is shifting its emphasis to community policing – a smart and welcome development.

The department’s Strike Force was formed in 2012 to work with state troopers and Erie County Sheriff’s investigators, focusing on crime enforcement and traffic checkpoints in areas identified as crime hot spots.

There’s nothing wrong with going where the crime is, but police work is not as simple as looking for perpetrators to lock up.

Black Lives Matter Buffalo and other community groups last summer filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office, asserting that the Strike Force’s tactics – the use of traffic checkpoints and enforcement sweeps inside public housing developments – were unfairly targeting people of color and were unconstitutional.

The office of then Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in December began an investigation of the Strike Force and the complaints against it. In February, the department disbanded the Strike Force unit. Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood, who took over the post this year, said the BPD would put its focus on community policing.

“Every officer is going to be a community police officer,” Lockwood told The News in February.

There were seven shootings in Buffalo within a five-day span over last weekend, one of them fatal. A department spokesman pointed out that the number of homicides and shootings is down this year compared to last, which is cold comfort to those who were shot.

Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo pointed out an uptick in crime such as the city saw in the past week is seasonal. There’s also an anti-snitching culture in parts of Buffalo, where people involved in gangs refuse to inform on each other or to help police.

While the Strike Force units have been abandoned, Rinaldo said the department is putting a greater emphasis on community policing, which amounts to officers walking their beats and getting to know the people in their districts.

Rinaldo said that Lockwood in the next few weeks will unveil a department-wide community policing initiative. The goal is to have more engagement between the police and the people they protect and serve, rather than relying on what’s often disparaged as drive-by work by officers in patrol cars.

Officers will still “flood the zone” in problem areas of the city, or in areas attracting large crowds, with an emphasis on listening to residents about what’s needed, rather than a heavy-handed enforcement approach.

Kudos to the Buffalo Police Department for realizing the Strike Force approach wasn’t the answer to preventing crime and for turning to something different.

Community policing has been given other names, including guardian policing, relationship-based policing and partnership policing. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, in a New York Times opinion column, described the goal as developing “humane, compassionate, culturally fluent cops who have a mind-set of respect, do not fear black men, and serve long enough to know residents’ names, speak their languages and help improve the neighborhood.”

Those are worthy goals in any city; we hope they inform the policing program that Commissioner Lockwood will soon unveil.

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