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Buffalo police regularly use racial slur for Black people, officials testify

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“There is a problem with systemic racism at every level, it appears, with the Buffalo Police Department,” said Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

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Buffalo police regularly use racial slurs when referring to Black members of the public.

The city’s officers receive little to no training on racial bias and profiling.

And when a citizen comes forward to make a complaint of racial discrimination, officers and supervisors don’t always forward the complaint to internal affairs investigators.

Those are the takeaways from the sworn testimony of five retired members of the Buffalo Police Department who were deposed earlier this year as part of a federal lawsuit claiming discriminatory policing against people of color on the East Side.

The deposition transcripts were obtained by The Buffalo News from lawyers who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court four years ago. Investigative Post first reported on the transcripts. 

The lawsuit accuses Buffalo police of discriminating against people of color through traffic enforcement practices, including checkpoints that targeted neighborhoods where the majority of residents are Black or Latino.

“There is a problem with systemic racism at every level, it appears, with the Buffalo Police Department,” said Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, which filed the lawsuit. “The depositions show how this isn’t isolated. It’s widespread. It’s part of the culture of the department.”

Through a spokesperson, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association declined to comment on behalf of the retired officers whose testimony is cited.

‘Probably every officer’ has used slur

Lt. Thomas Whelan, who worked on the Strike Force unit that is the subject of the lawsuit, acknowledged in sworn testimony that he has used a racial slur referring to Black people in his interactions with the public.

“Have I ever said it? Yes, I have, obviously,” Whelan said. “I’m a human being.”

Later in the deposition, Whelan, who was on the police force from 1997 to 2018, says the use of the word was widespread among officers, especially in heated confrontations with citizens.

“I can’t recall who, exactly. Probably every officer” has used the slur, Whelan said, speaking of his 21 years in the police department. “Probably every officer, at one time or another.”

Whelan said the slur is “not appropriate” and is “something that brings up a tragic past history of our country.”

As a police officer, Whelan said he felt he did not have sufficient authority to admonish fellow officers who used racial slurs.

“I probably should have spoken up, but I didn’t when I heard other officers using this kind of language,” Whelan said. “But once I became a lieutenant, everybody knows the standard which I hold my people to.”

But while he said officers in his command “knew better” than to use racial slurs, in another part of the deposition, Whelan defended their usage as an appropriate crowd control technique.

“If using foul language or even derogatory language will get people to comply with what you are trying to get them to do, then I guess I do think it is acceptable because it’s a very busy hot summer night and we don’t feel like having to arrest six or eight people for simply obstructing traffic,” Whelan said.

Police officers “are only human,” Whelan said, and often have racial slurs directed at them by angry crowds.

“And sometimes your – you lose control of your temper, and if the worst thing that happened on that day is that someone (sic) of these police officers, myself included, yelled a racial epithet back at them, I already said that's a win,” Whelan said. “Nobody got cracked in the head with a nightstick. I didn't have to fill out a use of force form. I didn't have to go to the hospital to check on a police officer or a civilian who got injured.”

Whelan did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request from The News for comment on his testimony.  

The Buffalo Police Department discriminated against people of color through traffic enforcement practices, including checkpoints that targeted neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black or Latino, according to allegations contained in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday. The lawsuit against the City of Buffalo was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law

Lack of training

Whelan also said he couldn’t recall specific instances outside of the police academy where officers were given training on racial discrimination in policing.

Occasionally, the Erie County district attorney “would send a representative over to the Strike Force Unit to talk about search and seizure law, profiling, things like that,” Whelan testified, before adding that he couldn’t recall “the exact content of the discussions.”

Lt. Kevin Brinkworth, who had a supervisory role over the Strike Force, was asked whether he or two police captains provided racial bias training to the department’s Housing Unit or Strike Force.

“Not that I recall,” said Brinkworth, who retired in 2018. 

A lawyer asked former Commissioner Daniel Derenda if he had ever looked to see what kind of training his officers had on racial profiling and racial bias.

“I don’t recall if I did or I didn’t,” Derenda stated.

Brinkworth could not be reached for comment Tuesday by The News. 

Read the full story here.

Complaints dismissed

The testimony from high-level police officials suggests that anyone accusing a Buffalo police officer of racial discrimination has a tough hill to climb. With their questions, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, the group called Black Love Resists in the Rust, showed it was not uncommon for formal complaints to be set aside as unsubstantiated after cursory examination.

For example, when an East Side resident complained to the police that he had been stopped solely because he was Black, the matter was addressed by a captain with no referral to Internal Affairs, even though the police department’s Manual of Procedures required it in a case of racial discrimination.

Claudia Wilner, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, which is representing Black Love Resists, asked Brinkworth about that. 

In order to investigate the claim on his own, the captain would have had to speak to the officers involved, right? Wilner asked Brinkworth.

“If he conducted an investigation, yes,” Brinkworth responded.

But the records generated for the complaint don’t show the captain spoke to the officers, Wilner pointed out. Still, Brinkworth admitted he approved the recommendation to close the complaint as unfounded without questioning the officers involved.

Consider a complaint filed by a woman who claimed she was pulled from her vehicle in 2017 and struck by officers who called her racial slurs and other derogatory names. To close out her complaint, then-Commissioner Derenda agreed with the finding that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove her accusations.

When asked during his deposition in November 2021 why he didn’t return the matter to the Internal Affairs Division and instruct them to examine the matter more deeply, Derenda said “maybe they did go through all of the evidence,” but he couldn’t give a full answer so many years after the complaint paperwork came before him. Derenda resigned as commissioner in January 2018.

The director of a Meals on Wheels program complained on behalf of a volunteer, who in 2013 said she was stopped by a police officer who asked why “a white girl” would be in these neighborhoods. Lawyers at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice found out about the complaint because it was mentioned in an email chain, which the lawyers obtained, between Derenda and Mayor Byron W. Brown’s spokesman, Michael J. DeGeorge.

Derenda admitted it would be a case of racial profiling if the woman was stopped only because she was a white person in a Black neighborhood. But the lawyers found no indication that Internal Affairs investigated the matter.

“Do you recall whether you asked Internal Affairs to open an investigation into this complaint?” Derenda was asked.

“I do not,” he responded.

“Do you recall whether you sought to identify the officers who were involved in this incident?”

“I don't recall anything about this case or this incident,” he answered.

Wilner later summed up the records she’d been provided by city officials.

“We have been through all of the Internal Affairs complaints that the city has turned over to us, and we could not identify a single instance in which you sustained a claim of racial discrimination. Can you recall any instance in which you sustained a complaint of racial profiling or racial discrimination?”

Said Derenda: “I cannot recall.”

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