Discuss the real issue. Racism.

OK, some windows got broken. Let's not lose focus on the fact racism is driving protests in Buffalo and elsewhere, and among the biggest perpetrators here is city government itself.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Allow me to provide some perspective in light of what transpired Saturday night in Niagara Square.

The issue isn’t “outside agitators,” the unsubstantiated claim made by Mayor Bryon Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. And it’s really not vandalism and looting, as unfortunate as that was.

No, the real issue is how city government under Brown and his rubber stamps on the Common Council have targeted black and brown residents. Many of them turned out Saturday to rally against not only the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis but the manner in which police treat people of color right here in Buffalo. And that maltreatment extends beyond the police department – in some cases, it’s essentially city policy.

But let’s start with police. No fewer than four men of color have died as the result of encounters with police in the past three years.

First there was Wardel “Meech” Davis, stopped in February 2017 by police officers who later refused to cooperate with investigators. In May of that year, Jose Hernandez-Rossy  was shot as he reportedly fled police. A fleeing Rafael “Pito” Rivera was shot by police in September 2018. Marcus Neal was shot by police after they cornered him on a garage rooftop in December 2018.

Let’s not forget about the settlement earlier this year in which the city paid Wilson Morales $4.5 million after police shot and paralyzed him in 2012. It’s not the only costly  settlement involving police misconduct.

Just a few weeks back we reported on a video showing a white Buffalo cop repeatedly punching in the face a black suspect who he had wrestled to the ground. The response of the police brass: keep the officer on the street.

Brown said watching the killing of George Floyd was “incredibly painful to watch.” The video of his own cop punching a black man in the face? Not so much.

Our Daniela Porat summed things up in a February 2017 story that posed the question: “Who polices the police?” The answer? No one. 

Internal Affairs cleared officers of wrongdoing in 58 of the 62 completed investigations into excessive force complaints filed between Jan. 1, 2014, and mid-September 2016.

She previously reported about the lack of de-escalation training officers receive. At the time, Desmond Abrams, a community organizer involved in activism against police misconduct, described typical police conduct this way: “Draw your gun, curse everyone out, tell everyone to mind their business, pulling everyone, be derogatory, be inflammatory. This is the norm for the Buffalo Police Department.” 

It’s unclear how much training has been provided since our story. We know from a story by Ali Ingersoll that published last October that training lags in one important way: it’s going to be a couple of years before officers get trained in the use of rifles purchased back in 2017.

The city in 2017 did disband its Strike Force unit, described by one defense attorney as “vigilantes” with a “cowboy mentality,” but only after getting outed by Investigative Post and sued by activists. The Strike Force specialized in setting up checkpoints in minority neighborhoods and writing as many tickets as possible.

Another outrage continues: efforts to step up enforcement of traffic laws in minority neighborhoods, coupled with the jacking up of fines and fees. The strategy has increased revenue to the city and prompted a lot of people to lose their driver’s licenses.


Heaney discusses his column on WBFO


All these problems begin at the top, meaning the mayor. If any white mayor was treating the black community like this, he’d be rightfully accused of being a racist. But it’s just not the mayor: Council President Darius Pridgen is black, Majority Leader David Rivera, a retired Buffalo cop and chairman of the dysfunctional Police Oversight Committee, is Hispanic, and they are in lockstep with Brown.

The problems extend to the leadership of the police department. Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood, who at times struggles in his public comments to string two coherent sentences together, functions as a figurehead. Deputy Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia really runs the department, that is, when he’s not moonlighting at his second job in the Village of Blasdell. Presumably he’s been working in Buffalo this weekend.  

Two stories last week by The Intercept and The Marshall Project considered what the police killing in Minneapolis say about police reform. Which is to say, too little, too late.  

Buffalo is in the same boat, not that the folks in power are paying attention. 

Brown – as he does with all major problems, think lead poisoning – has turned a blind eye to the problems within his police department. The Council is similarly indifferent. Its Police Oversight Committee meets only a couple of times a year and rarely takes up issues that matter. That didn’t stop Pridgen from going on the TV news Saturday night to congratulate himself and other city officials for a job well done on police issues.

While the police are widely distrusted in the city’s black and brown neighborhoods, their elected officials in City Hall seem all too happy to acquiesce to their predominantly white police force and their politically powerful union.

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That’s been on full display via Brown’s press conferences the past couple of days in he praised his police in what was otherwise a bit of a meltdown.

If the mayor wants to rail at those responsible for the state of the city, he should start by finding himself a mirror.

Not to be outdone, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn is huffing and puffing about “who the organizers were of this protest.” 

Finally, there is the county executive. His rants this weekend contrast with his near silence in the face of more than 30 inmate deaths in his county holding center and refusal to lift a finger to release nonviolent prisoners during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Poloncarz is a faux progressive, but then again, what do you expect from a politician who, like nearly every elected official in this town, long accepted campaign contributions from Carl Paladino?