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COMMENTARY

Forget pressing police to reform. Pressure their elected enablers.

Rod Watson

So much for the "one bad apple" theory when cops go rogue.

Judging by the support he got from both his union and his boss before resigning Wednesday, rather than being a rotten cop, convicted Deputy Kenneth Achtyl was a fine example of all the Erie County Sheriff’s Office stands for.

Achtyl is the deputy who turned a Buffalo Bills fan’s face into a broken, bloody mess. The fan’s offense? Having the audacity to ask where his arrested friend was being taken so he could pick him up and then swearing – which courts have said is not illegal – when the deputy responded with something less than you would expect from someone paid by the public to serve the public.

Which brings us to perhaps the only pressure point that counts if we really want police reform: their paychecks.

The public has to start holding accountable the elected officials who approve police contracts, and start making local elections about taxpayers’ refusal to keep paying raises to their abusers.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn’s office prosecuted Achtyl and a jury convicted him after seeing the evidence with their own eyes. The decisions took guts and wisdom.

I would use other words to describe the deputies' union and Timothy Howard, the sheriff who showed up at trial every day to support his miscreant deputy and share thoughts with the defense team. Howard even had the gall to criticize the release of body camera footage showing Achtyl inflicting a broken nose and concussion on the fan. The sheriff wanted to be consulted first, saying such footage should not be released to the public unless he can provide "faithful explanation of what was happening in the background."

What was happening was that fan Nicholas Belsito was getting beaten to a bloody pulp.

Yet the deputies' union, on its Facebook page, whined about the verdict, calling it a "setback for ALL local law enforcement" and tried to blame the victim for not complying with the cop’s demands. Of course, Belsito had all charges against him dropped once the truth overtook Achtyl’s fabricated police report.

The verdict is not a setback for all law enforcement; it is a setback for abusive law enforcement.

It’s too bad the deputies’ union doesn’t know the difference. Start linking contractual pay hikes to its members treatment of the public – say, by the number of meritorious complaints or some other metric – and they’ll learn quickly. So would other departments.

At one of the community meetings of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, the point was made that this is both an election year for Common Council members and the year in which a new police contract is being negotiated.

That contract ultimately will need Council approval. That gives city residents the perfect opportunity to put pressure on Council candidates before Election Day to take the pledge: No raises for abusive police.

The Erie County deputies’ contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2021, which means the pressure won’t be as immediate. But by the same token, it leaves more time for grassroots groups to plan to make that issue a focal point of forums, debates and candidate assessments.

If police won’t reform themselves, the public’s leverage has to be on the elected officials who pay them. As for the notion that this punishes good cops along with the bad, if the good cops are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

A couple of years ago, the Western New York Peace Center established the Cariol Horne Whistleblower Fund, named for the city cop fired for trying to stop a colleague from abusing a suspect. The goal was to break the "blue wall of silence" and assist any officer who steps up like she did and then suffers financial repercussions like an unpaid suspension or big legal bills.

However, a spokesman said that not only hasn’t the fund gotten the contributions organizers had hoped, no officer has even tried to use it.

Maybe it’s just asking too much for individual cops to break the blue wall. But threaten their collective paychecks, and they may be a lot more willing to rein in – or turn in – abusive colleagues.

Prosecutors and the Brown administration have gone after city cops accused of abuse, but the problem remains. For his part, Howard even wanted an opinion from the county attorney on whether he could have kept Achtyl. From any other sheriff, that might have been understood as merely a legal precaution; from this sheriff, it sounded like a preference for retaining a convicted abuser. At least Achtyl saved him the trouble. But the union’s response only heightens fears about this entire department.

Residents can’t threaten people empowered with badges and guns, but they can threaten the people who approve their raises. Make elected officials more afraid of abuse-weary voters than they are of the police unions that back their campaigns, and we might get more cops who actually serve and protect rather than those like Achtyl, who abuse and then lie about it.

DA suggests Deputy Achtyl should be fired after Friday's guilty verdicts

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