If only these really were just stories from the “bad old days” and it was a sure thing that racist and/or discriminatory practices by the Buffalo Police Department had been abolished, hopefully forever. But when officer testimony from as recent as five years ago indicates a possible pattern of bias in several areas of city policing, it’s time for some honest talk – followed by aggressive action.
Honesty needs to come first. Denials from Mayor Byron Brown and Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia aren’t working anymore. The evidence is mounting, as the testimony of retired police officers is joined by emails and even sworn statements by active officers. These revelations are being made public as part of the federal lawsuit against the City of Buffalo by the activist organization Black Love Resists in the Rust. The lawsuit alleges demanding and dehumanizing behavior at BPD traffic checkpoints in predominately Black neighborhoods on the East Side.
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First, there was the testimony of a retired Buffalo police officer that racist epithets of every type were commonly used during his time on the BPD’s infamous Strike Force unit, which was active between 2012 and 2017 and, with the help of the housing unit, manned the checkpoints.
Then we have the testimony of active Buffalo police officer Lt. Lance Russo who was able to answer “Sure” when asked, “Have you ever heard uniformed officers use racial slurs?” It’s true that Russo quickly clarified that “…it’s not a prevalent thing anymore. I couldn’t say that I have heard that anytime recently.”
Like the retired officers who testified, Russo could not remember when he received in-service training on racial bias, though he is “sure we have.”
Finally, there is Capt. Amber Beyer, who led the department’s behavioral health team. She has been suspended without pay in the wake of a lawsuit accusing her of making racist remarks in front of two Black police officers and a Black mental health clinician. This incident is alleged to have happened last May.
That makes two lawsuits, one of them already accompanied by a growing pile of damning depositions, that – in addition to incidents of outright racist comments – document targeting of predominantly Black communities for traffic enforcement, a Strike Force unit that was urged to write as many tickets as possible in those communities and a lack of any specific procedure for addressing citizen complaints of racial bias by police.
This is all very troubling, but does it mean that racism runs amok within the Buffalo Police Department and can’t be fixed? No. It could certainly indicate that efforts to tamp down illegal activity in Buffalo neighborhoods were heavy-handed at best and completely misapplied at worst.
And the Beyer allegations – as well as the vague remembrances of racial bias training given by officers testifying in the Black Love Resists lawsuit – point quite clearly to the need for more frequent and substantial training on implicit bias.
If there is any good news here, it is that Black officers spoke up about Beyer’s behavior and that – some – white officers are admitting to speech and behavior that most have been silent about for too long.
There’s nothing new about the problem of racism in law enforcement, but efforts toward possible solutions have gained momentum over the past decade and more. The mayor and police commissioner say implicit bias training has existed for years and is regularly updated.
According to a 2020 reform agenda issued by the city, an extensive list of policies and programs – including diversity-based recruitment, neighborhood engagement teams, body-worn cameras (adopted in 2019), new community policing programs and more – were already in place well before New York State mandated a new reform plan, which added more initiatives.
What’s missing? One answer could be time. It takes time to change a culture, and – regardless of the denials – Buffalo, like so many other American cities, is overshadowed by the culture of racism. That includes its police department. As then-Commissioner Byron Lockwood said in his introduction to the 2020 Buffalo Reform Agenda, “... police misconduct and systemic racism have been developing for generations, and we will not eradicate them overnight.”
That truth has been borne out in other cities, including Grand Rapids, Mich., where a city-commissioned study conducted between 2013 and 2015 found Black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as their white counterparts. A 12-point plan to address this was issued by the city. Then there was a series of troubling confrontations between Black citizens and police between 2017 and 2019, each one followed by new city reform policies. In 2020, citywide protests led to more promises. Most recently, the April 4, 2022, killing of unarmed Congolese refugee Patrick Lyoya has prompted many to conclude that Grand Rapids law enforcement still needs major reform.
Cities across the country have demonstrated the same, sad trajectory. The difficulty of stopping racist policing for good makes it all the more urgent.
Again, it starts with honesty. Some of that has already been provided in testimony by Buffalo police officers. Russo, deposed in the Black Love Resists lawsuit, spoke with praise of the neighborhood engagement teams, as follows: “... it was an outreach, like a connection, so that kids didn’t grow up hating us … you are constantly being hated for whatever reason.”
It’s time to admit that these negative opinions have merit. Admit, as Lockwood did, that it won’t be easy to change the culture, and, for that reason, turbocharge the procedures that will help prevent further incidents.
It isn’t enough for mandated training to exist on paper; it needs to be taken by all officers in practice. It isn’t enough to say “zero tolerance” if officers don’t believe the policy is real.
It starts with honesty.
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