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Buffalo's police monitoring panel leaderless despite pressing issues

As community activists and the state attorney general push for police reforms in Buffalo, the city commission tasked with monitoring police interactions with the community has been without a director for about a year. The oversight panel also has been without a permanent chairperson since mid-November, according to a worker who answered the commission’s phone last week.

The city’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations is supposed to help citizens file and pursue police misconduct complaints, review the Police Department’s community relations training programs and monitor procedures for investigating and resolving police misconduct complaints. Once a misconduct investigation has been completed, the commission also can review police files of the probe; and at least once a year, it is supposed to report to the mayor or the Common Council on the state of police training programs in community relations and the standards and procedures for handling misconduct complaints.

Yet the commission has not had a director since attorney Richard J. Morrisroe left in 2017. The city issued a job posting Sept. 8, 2017, for the executive director position at a salary of $86,427, and resumes were to have been submitted by Nov. 14, 2017.

Allison Lack – an attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since October 2014, according to her LinkedIn account – reportedly was chosen back in May to head the commission. But in a voicemail last week, Lack said she withdrew from consideration as executive director and instead accepted a job as general counsel with the Buffalo Sewer Authority.

The Brown administration did not comment for this story despite requests through text message, email and verbally through a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown.

The vacancies at the top of the panel charged with monitoring police comes at the same time that the department has been under increasing scrutiny and citizen demands for accountability following some controversial policing tactics and fatal shootings.

Activists have protested  the use of traffic checkpoints and public housing sweeps, which they said unfairly targeted communities of color after a study by the University at Buffalo and Cornell University law schools found disproportionate arrest rates.

The protests also have been spurred by the fatal shootings of three civilians – two of them unarmed, a third who police said was armed but who activists said was running away – at the hands of police.

In February, the state Attorney General's Office found no cause to file charges against police in one of the shootings, though it did recommend a series of reforms. Also in February, the department disbanded the controversial Strike Force unit, which had played a key part in the checkpoints.

Nevertheless, in June, three legal organizations filed a federal lawsuit accusing the department of preying on neighborhoods of color to raise money through unconstitutional traffic checkpoints.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, who first raised the issue back in January, said recently the Brown administration should fill the position if it’s budgeted, otherwise “it’s a waste of money because (the city) is not getting the bang for the buck.”

For several months, Franczyk said, he referred cases to Morrisroe's predecessor, who had taken another city job in 2016 but was still helping citizens file reports with the commission until the city could find a new executive director. However, that person took a job with SUNY Buffalo State in October.

Franczyk recently said he didn’t know if the 11-member commission – appointed by the mayor with Council confirmation – was operating with a full board, and that  people may not know where to go for help with things like filing complaints.

“The charter says we have those positions there for a reason,” Franczyk said. “So fill them and do the job because where are people going to go?”

Natasha Soto, co-founder of Just Resisting, a racial and criminal justice organization, said the fact that the commission seems to be nonoperational is problematic for citizens.

“There’s no commission to work with," she said. "I’m aware that they’ve been looking for an executive director for a while. It shouldn’t be a hard position to fill. It’s an $80,000 position.”

Meanwhile, the city needs a commission “that will hold the administration and Police Department accountable, so there would be some repercussions for (police officers') actions,” Soto added. “I think residents deserve that.”

David Granville, the employment and training coordinator at the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, had been chairman until mid-November. When contacted at the BMHA, Granville confirmed he is no longer the commission’s chairman but was unavailable for further comment.

Charles F. Torres – the acting chairman, according to the worker who answered the commission’s phone last week – did not return two calls for comment.

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