Locked, loaded and stuck in storage

Lack of training has stopped Buffalo police from issuing rifles bought for use in response to a mass shooting

More than half of the 125 rifles Buffalo police bought two years ago to use in the event of a mass shooting sit unused because the department has yet to train most officers in their use. And police say it’s probably going to be another two years until all the necessary training is completed.

“For some reason, unknown to us, the training ceased,” said John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. As a result, the rifle purchase ”seems like a colossal waste of money.”

The police attribute the slow rollout to factors including training requirements and the time demands of moving department headquarters and obtaining state accreditation.

Police advocated for the purchase of rifles in response to a growing number of mass shootings across the country. Police say they’re at a disadvantage in such situations because their handguns are only accurate up to 25 yards away, while the rifles are accurate up to 100 yards away.

In response, the department, with the approval of the Common Council, bought the single-shot, semi-automatic rifles with $79,313 in state grant funding in July 2017.

The goal then: Train and equip every patrol, traffic and school resource officer — that’s more than 500 cops — on the longer-range, .40-caliber carbines.

The reality now: Only about 50 police officers have been trained and the guns have not been distributed across units.

Buffalo police officer takes aim at Cheektowaga training facility.

“It’s not that it’s not a high priority,” said Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo.

Rather, he said the focus has been on training in the use of handguns, which the state requires all officers to carry. Training in the use of rifles is not automatically mandated because officers are not required to carry them.

Additional training was mandated by the Common Council when it approved the purchase of the rifles in March 2017. Council members acted in response to community concerns after several citizens died during encounters with police — more have died since — and Investigative Post reported that the training of officers in de-escalation techniques lagged behind many other city departments.

A spokesperson for Niagara Council Member David Rivera, chairman of the Council’s Police Oversight Committee, said he unaware of the training’s slow progress and that he would raise the issue at the next committee meeting.

Mandated training

Buffalo has since trained all officers in de-escalation tactics. Officers have also completed a shoot/don’t shoot simulation training. Both of which were required by state accreditors.

The department has added three additional trainings, two at the insistence of the Council. Officers must complete:

  • 16 hours of target practice firing the rifles at a shooting range. Around 50 of the department’s 729 officers have completed this training.
  • 16 hours of “Blue Courage” classroom instruction on ethics and coping with the psychological toll that comes with police work. About 350 officers have completed the course.
  • 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team Training focused on de-escalating situations involving those in distress. More than 120 officers have completed this training, provided by Crisis Services.

At the current pace, Rinaldo said it will take an estimated two more years for all officers to complete the training required for them to use the rifles. In the meantime, he said the training is “trekking along based on availability and scheduling.”

Reasons for delay

Why have so few officers completed the training?

Target practice with the rifles has been limited by the department’s loss of its shooting range since moving to its new headquarters on Court Street in the fall of 2018. To make do, police officers have access to the Cheektowaga Police Department’s range, but only once a week.

Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council have budgeted only $1.1 million of the $1.8 million needed to build a shooting range on Seneca Street. Rinaldo is hopeful work will begin by next spring and anticipates it’ll be another year until officers will be able to use it.

The Blue Courage training has been downsized from 16 hours to a different five-hour course with its curriculum focused on fairness, transparency and impartiality.

The de-escalation training has been hampered by infrequent scheduling of classes. The last one took place in May, while the next is scheduled for December. Tracie Bussi of Crisis Services said her organization has been unable to regularly offer the course because of a staffing shortage. She added that “it isn’t illogical” to pair intervention training with the use of these weapons.

Rinaldo considers the de-escalation training unnecessary as a pre-condition for issuing the rifles.

“If somebody walks into a school or into an office building with a weapon and they’re killing people, there isn’t room for de-escalation,” he said. “To tie des-escalation training to rifles is apples to oranges.”

Another issue: scheduling time for officers to attend the training courses has been a point of contention between the union and department. The PBA has filed a grievance requesting overtime pay for officers who change their schedules to attend the training sessions, which may not fall during their usual shifts.

“They need to release officers for the training, but they have limitations with how they can backfill,” said Bussi of Crisis Services.

“We’re pretty much defenseless”

Buffalo police bought the rifles, along with armored vests, with $282,611 from the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Both community members and the police union criticized then-Commissioner Daniel Derenda for getting the rifles. Derenda, however, said he was uncomfortable arming officers with fully automatic rifles like AR-15s. Union officials argued that, even with higher accuracy at greater distances, the .40-caliber carbine rifles would leave officers vulnerable.

“I don’t want to say we’re defenseless, but we’re pretty much defenseless against a long-range threat,” said Evans, the police union president.

Our Weekly Newsletter

As of now, the rifles are assigned to officers trained in their use, who keep the weapons in their patrol cars while on duty. Once all officers are trained in their use, the department will have a sign-out process for the rifles, Rinaldo said.

That’s contrary to plans police shared with Investigative Post in 2017. Police originally said the rifles would be secured with supervising lieutenants and distributed only in the case of a mass shooting or terrorist-type event. Despite the change, Rinaldo reiterated police officers should only be using the rifles during active shooter situations.

Check out our Nov. 13 event at the Buffalo Irish Center

Buffalo was among a handful of Erie County agencies awarded money to bolster their protective equipment collection. In all, six departments split more than $470,000.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Department and most suburban teams didn’t use the funding to purchase rifles, opting instead to purchase gear like armored vests and helmets. Hamburg police bought 10 rifles with their money and a captain there confirmed all officers have been trained on the guns which are in patrol cars — locked, loaded, and ready to use.

Unlike those those in Buffalo, which sit in the basement of police headquarters, waiting for officers to train on how to use them.