Buffalo can take steps now to establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct, according to the New York State Attorney General's Office.
Such a board should hold final disciplinary authority over officers and subpoena power, and it should have a substantial budget and a qualified professional staff to carry out its duties, according to a letter from the office's Civil Rights Bureau to Mayor Byron W. Brown.
Mayor Byron W. Brown's draft recommendations for police reform in Buffalo released earlier this week fail to take adequate steps toward change and ignored community input, a group of activists and community groups said Friday.
At a minimum, the board should be able to require the Police Department to state in writing its reasons for deviating from recommended discipline, according to the letter.
The 12-page letter came in response to the city’s draft recommendations on police reform. Gov. Andrew Cuomo required communities to adopt police reform plans by April 1.
The Attorney General’s Office expressed concern that the city released the draft plan just days before the deadline, saying the timing “likely hindered the opportunity for meaningful public comment.”
The recommendations are part of the city's response to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's executive order requiring local governments to improve their police departments.
City spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said the Brown administration began public dialogue and putting in place reform initiatives before the governor even issued his order, and the city’s draft included recommendations from the public and the attorney general.
"The administration will continue to treat this as a living document that is meant to be considered in the context of real-world application, feedback and review," DeGeorge said. "The reform process in Buffalo is an ongoing process, and there is still much work to be done.”
The push to establish a civilian review board has been supported by groups such as the Partnership for Public Good and the Common Council’s Police Advisory Board, which called for creating such a board nearly a year ago.
Support for a civilian review board from Attorney General Letitia James will boost the efforts to get it in place, say proponents of the idea.
“This is something that has been kind of resisted, I think, by the majority of the Council and by the mayor, and we hope that Attorney General James’ recommendations will give them some cause to reconsider,” said attorney Miles Gresham, policy fellow at the Partnership for the Public Good. “Independent oversight is not window dressing. It changes how police discipline works.”
The head of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association took offense at portions of a city plan to improve policing.
The police union – the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association - opposes a board with such power.
The Attorney General’s Office commended the Police Advisory Board for its “thoughtful, detailed proposal” for independent oversight and review of officer misconduct and said the city should seriously consider its recommendations.
DeJon Hall, the Buffalo activist who wrote the police oversight recommendations submitted to the Council by the Police Advisory Board last year, was proud James championed it. He said it reaffirms the advisory board's position that the structural and systemic changes proposed by the board are fully legal.
"So at this point I think the Common Council and the mayor are out of excuses, and that it’s long past time to start adopting seriously thought out and researched proposals put forth by the (advisory board),” Hall said.
DeGeorge, the city spokesman, said the city is "committed to ensuring the public has a voice in police discipline."
"With the reform process ongoing, the city is currently considering all options relating to reforming the police disciplinary process," he said.
The city's review must be done in a way that avoids violating state law, which generally makes discipline a mandatory subject of bargaining with the police union, he said.
Buffalo’s draft was based on recommendations from the city's Commission on Police Reform and Social Reconstruction, whose 12 members were all appointed by Brown in September.
The recommendations focused on a stronger Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations to foster better relations between the police and residents. The commission would determine if state law allows oversight by the commission of police officers.