A federal grand jury last week found two Buffalo police officers not guilty of shooting a teenager with a BB gun but that does not make the public unsee the unsightly side of policing and unhear stories of the accusers.
Both the public and police must use this two-week trial – and its verdict – to recommit to important concepts. Trust and communication between law enforcement and residents would certainly stem some problems. Overarching all of it, though, is the fundamental requirement to hire the right people and then to train them to respond professionally in the high-stress situations that are part and parcel of their work. That’s the job.
Start with the fact that four teenagers shot a BB gun into a crowd in North Buffalo in 2009, striking one person. They broke the law. They were wrong.
What happened after being caught and taken into custody? Nine years later, Donald J. Silmon told a story about that night: about being grabbed by the neck by a police officer, choked and slammed headfirst into the hood of a car. Then another police officer, he said, shot him in the leg with a BB gun, and a third officer punched him twice in the stomach.
Silmon was 17 at the time. He said the officers laughed.
A former police officer who already pleaded guilty in the confrontation backed up Silmon’s testimony. Gregory Kwiatkowski, a retired lieutenant, acknowledged that the officers, himself included, went too far. The officers on trial, Joseph Wendel and Raymond Krug, in turn, pointed the finger at Kwiatkowski, who had his own troubled history.
In 2008, Kwiatkowski and a fellow officer, Cariol Horne, got into a scuffle. Horne jumped on her fellow officer’s back, claiming that he was choking a person being arrested. She was fired.
This was never simply a case of young people breaking the law by shooting a BB gun – endangering persons and property – and being punished for the crime, though it could have been. When credible allegations surfaced that these lawbreakers were beaten up by law enforcement officers, the situation became incendiary and far more complex.
It is possible – indeed, essential – that citizens can support police and still demand that they follow the rules. There is no disconnect there. Just like everyone else, police officers are going to make mistakes. Some will break the law.
That’s why careful hiring and meticulous, ongoing training are critical. Police are authorized to carry weapons and to deprive individuals of their liberty. Their job is to deal with people, including criminals and their victims, who are under severe stress. Some may lash out – verbally or physically. It’s hard work and it calls for special skills that don’t include the reckless use of force.
To be fair, since that time and under the previous police commissioner, Daniel Derenda, many of the department’s “bad apples” have been removed. Mayor Byron W. Brown has instituted a policy for new police officers, mandating that they live in the city for several years.
Moreover, Brown and the city’s new police commissioner, Byron Lockwood, are working diligently to get guns off the street. That effort includes community policing in which officers get to know residents before incidents occur. This is about building trust, including a weekly soccer game on the East Side, involving children, police officers and members of the Peacemakers, and anti-violence coalition.
The police department must continue its efforts to build bridges between law enforcement and the community. Much of that work appears to be ongoing, and should be supported by residents. Trust, communication and training, training, training will go a long way toward ensuring safe neighborhoods.