By India Walton
On Sept. 12, Officer Elnur Karadzhaev shot and killed 32-year-old Rafael “Pito” Rivera, a son, father, brother and friend. In a matter of hours, the Buffalo Police Department crafted a narrative to justify the use of deadly force. This was determined prior to surveillance footage being obtained. They even had a police training “expert” speak to the local media, asserting that a person need not pose an imminent threat to the officer to justify lethal use of force – preparing the community to accept that Officer Karadzhaev was justified in shooting Pito in the back as he was running away.
Pito ran into a well-lit parking lot, likely because he was afraid. As he should have been: History tells black and brown people in America that the police are allowed to kill us with impunity.
For the third time in less than two years a person has violently lost their life at the hands of Buffalo police. In investigating the death of Jose Hernandez-Rossy, the state attorney general issued a heavily redacted report that highlighted lack of cooperation and accountability on the part of the Buffalo Police Department.
There has been no action by city government to address the public outcry surrounding the death of the unarmed Hernandez-Rossy. That raises questions: Who are the police accountable to? How can the BPD, an agency currently defending multiple civil rights suits, hold itself accountable? And where do we go from here?
Our Justice and Opportunity Coalition applauded the BPD’s recent efforts to seek accreditation, increase community policing and implement body cameras, but, in the absence of accountability and transparency, these policy changes have no value. The only way to make body cameras a viable solution to policing problems in Buffalo is implementing a camera that officers do not have discretion to turn on and off, and ensuring an independent means of formal grievance, oversight and public accountability. No effort to improve modern policing will be effective without community oversight.
Currently, the city’s Commission on Citizens' Rights and Community Relations has powers it doesn’t use and hasn’t issued a report since 2009. The Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee has only advisory capacity. It’s too early to judge the efficacy of the new community-led police advisory board. This latest incident reaffirms the urgency of accountability. Buffalo needs a process of accountability that is independent of the blue line.
“Justice for Pito” doesn't just mean Officer Karadzhaev will be fired. It doesn’t just mean that Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn will bring appropriate criminal charges against the perpetrator of this tragic death. Justice for Pito means that tragedies like this won't happen in the first place. It means perhaps officers will think about who they must answer to before using force.
India Walton is a community organizer working on justice and opportunity issues for Open Buffalo.