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Editorial: Buffalo's police panel mystery needs to be solved

When Byron Lockwood took the reins as Buffalo’s police commissioner in June, he pledged to use community policing to show residents that officers are “the good guys.” The department launched a Neighborhood Engagement Team to go into some higher-crime neighborhoods and get to better know the citizens as well as coordinate with community groups like Buffalo Peacemakers.

That welcome spirit of community outreach seems at odds with the fact that the city commission that oversees police interactions with the public has been without a director for about a year and currently has no permanent chairperson. And no one from the city or the commission seems willing to talk about it.

As detailed in a story in Monday’s Buffalo News, the city’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations has been without a director since attorney Richard J. Morrisroe left in 2017. The job has a salary of more than $86,000 and was advertised to the public a year ago. An attorney named Allison Lack was chosen in May to head the commission, but withdrew to take a job with the Buffalo Sewer Authority.

Is it that hard to find applicants for a job that pays that much? No one from the city will say. Messages sent by The News to Mayor Byron W. Brown’s spokesman seeking comment were not returned.

Each member of the commission is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Common Council – hardly a setup that ensures independence.

David Granville, an executive with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, had been chairman until mid-November, but no longer serves in the post.

Why do these vacancies matter?

The commission 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. At least once a year, the panel 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. The panel reportedly has not issued a report in several years.

A citizen charging police misconduct can file a report either to the leaderless commission or to the department’s Internal Affairs division. There is little reason to think that either body will not be influenced by its ties to the department or the city.

The department has been under increasing scrutiny and citizen demands for accountability following some controversial policing tactics and fatal shootings. 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 several reforms. Also in February, the department disbanded the controversial Strike Force unit, which had played a key part in traffic checkpoints that activists say unfairly targeted communities of color.

Just as curious as the commission’s vacancies is the fact that no one from the city or the panel will talk about them.

Granville confirmed to The News that he is no longer the commission’s chairman but was unavailable for further comment. Charles F. Torres – the acting chairman, according to a person who answered the commission’s phone last week – did not return calls seeking comment. The mayor’s office also declined requests from WGRZ Channel 2 in August to discuss the commission’s leadership status.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk was quoted saying 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.”

The council has every right to demand answers from the Brown administration. There shouldn’t be any blue wall of silence surrounding a commission whose mission is overseeing the police.

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