What police reform should look like

Priorities should include investigating abuse, spending smarter, addressing PBA contract and pressing sheriff on jails
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

The focus of protests in Buffalo the past week has sharpened: reform the Buffalo Police Department. A coalition of activists have put 13 demands in front of Mayor Byron Brown, some more achievable than others. Protestors have also raised the issue of Sheriff Tim Howard’s deadly management of county jails, where 30 inmates have died on his watch.

Here’s my two cents on where to go from here.

The big picture: We have a big problem with the actions and attitude of law enforcement in Western New York. It’s not a matter of a few bad apples — there are more than a few — but the tolerance of their conduct by their peers and bosses. 

The fact that a couple of hundred cops rallied Saturday in front of City Court in support of the two cops who sent a 75-year-old man to the hospital with a serious head injury says a lot. 

Remember when members of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department did likewise in support of the deputy charged and eventually convicted in the assault of a fan in the parking lot after a Bills game in 2017? The deputy’s boss called him a hero

And let’s not forget the manner in which ICE mistreats immigrant detainees released from its facility in Batavia — marooning them at a local bus stop.

Getting back to Buffalo police, priority must be given to finding a better way to investigate complaints of officer misconduct. Right now, the task is left to the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which we’ve reported clears cops nine times out of 10. Which is to say, there is no real accountability. 

Cities have tried different approaches, including civilian review boards with the staff, funding and subpoena power to conduct real investigations. Activists need to insist on a process with teeth.

There’s talk in Albany of handing the task to the state Attorney General’s office. The same operation that has turned a blind eye to corruption, despite having a public integrity unit? No. The task of weeding out bad cops is a job for the locals with a singular mission.

If state lawmakers want to help, repeal 50-a, the law that shields the disciplinary records of police officers from public disclosure.

Also in need of change: the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association. It’s problematic in all sorts of ways. 

For starters, it strips police administrators of management rights that are the norm in most cities. Seniority, not competency, dictates promotions and the assignment of overtime, for example. 

And how are supervisors going to manage, and if necessary, discipline officers when they’re all part of the same union? All but a handful of the 700-member department belong to the PBA. If you’re not the commissioner or a deputy commissioner, you’re in the union.

There’s also the matter of funding. The Buffalo Police Department chews up about one-third of the city budget. The spending dwarfs that for parks, recreation and health and human services.

For decades, the city’s idea of providing services to black and brown neighborhoods has consisted largely of flooding the streets with cops, many of them there to hand out traffic tickets. There’s more to municipal services than that.

There’s more that needs doing. More training, more transparency and a review and revision of use of force policies and practices. It’s not just about changing discriminatory practices, but making the department more cost efficient and effective. Do you know, for example, that the department has a middling track record of solving crime, and a bad one when it comes to homicides?

The push for reform needs to extend beyond the police department. Four men of color have died since 2017 as the result of interactions with Buffalo cops. More than 30 inmates — men, women, black, brown and white — have died in Erie County jails, most of them at the notorious downtown Holding Center. 

Howard has frequently thumbed his nose at efforts to investigate and reform practices there, and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and county legislators have kept funding this carnage with barely a peep. They need to use their power of the purse, and bully pulpit. 

There’s a lot of heat on Brown to deal with police matters. Poloncarz needs to feel the same kind of pressure on the jails.

Let’s face it, without protests they’re both do-nothings.

Read more of our reporting on police misconduct