No more name tags for Buffalo cops

Reform advocates decry move, saying it makes police less accountable. Change follows "doxing" of officers, which makes them more susceptible to harassment.

Concerned with officer safety following an uptick in online harassment, Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood is no longer requiring Buffalo cops to display name tags on their uniforms.

Many officers had been ignoring the previous edict requiring officers to display their name tags on their outermost garments since anti-racism protests began in late May. Members of the public, including demonstrators, have said the absence of name tags makes it impossible to identify officers engaged in misconduct.  

According to Captain Jeffrey Rinaldo, the department’s spokesman, the policy was altered last Friday after more than a dozen police officers were doxed — that is, had personal information about them and their families published online. 

“Everything from personal identifying information to names of children and where they go to school,” Rinaldo told Investigative Post. “Very detrimental information that no person in society would want publicly posted.”

De’Jon Hall is a member of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, which released a slate of police reform proposals in June. Speaking for himself and not for the board, Hall said he understood the concerns of officers, but also those of the community.

“Removing name tags from police uniforms is not a step in the right direction,” Hall told Investigative Post. “It’s a departure away from much needed — and much requested — transparency. It is, in my opinion, just another misstep by our city officials.”

Rinaldo said some of the officers who were doxed received threats of violence. He said some threats were so specific the department provided officers protection.

“It’s a situation where the department has to be aware of the threat that some people pose to law officers, as well as their families,” he said.

John Evans, president of the Police Benevolent Association, told Investigative Post an officer had his home address, along with his wife and child’s names, posted on social media sites; the officer relocated his family on two different occasions because he felt the threats were credible. 

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Doxing is not illegal, per se. But the ways in which the information released through doxing is used could rise to the level of being illegal. 

“Posting personal information online with malicious intent is not illegal under current New York State law,” said Kait Munro, the spokesperson for the Erie County District Attorney. 

But, she added, charges for harassment and/or stalking could be filed against someone if the poster or anyone who has that information uses it in a way that rises to the level of criminal activity.

Doxing refers to the digital release of private information without consent, typically as a display of power or blackmail, as described by Wired in an article discussing how both the extreme right and far left use the practice.

“Those sorts of details would not only make the doxee easy to harass but possibly physically unsafe,” wrote Emma Grey Ellis in the Wired article. 

Under the new policy, requested by the police union, officers must display their badge numbers on their outermost garments where their name tags were. Rinaldo told Investigative Post “it’ll take weeks” until new patches displaying badge numbers are  available to officers. In the interim, he said, some officers have been writing their badge numbers on black tape affixed over their name tags. 

Meanwhile, he said, people can ask officers to identify themselves and, according to police command, an officer must provide a badge number to anyone who requests it. A citizen can then use the badge number to file a complaint, Rinaldo said.

The Common Council was not made aware of the policy modification ahead of time, according to David Rivera, chairperson of the Council’s Police Oversight Committee. 

While I understand that this is for the safety of the officers, the administration and the commissioner should still be transparent when making policy changes,” said Rivera, a retired police detective who represents the Niagara District.

Protest organizers have been opposed to officers covering their name tags, which has been regularly occurring at demonstrations in Buffalo, including marches to Mayor Byron Brown’s house and the M.T. Pockets bar on Hertel Avenue. 

Just three weeks ago, police department leadership publicly insisted officers must display their name tags. Deputy Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told WGRZ-TV failure to do so could prompt an Internal Affairs complaint and discipline from the commissioner.

“We’ve seen time and time again where police have committed misconduct,” said Miles Gresham, a defense attorney and a board member of Free the People coalition, which has participated in reform negotiations with Brown.

“I trust most of them [the police officers] to follow the rules, but the issue is the danger caused to the community from this small group of rouge officers who don’t follow the rules. And not being able to identify who those rogue officers is dangerous.” 

Gresham said he has not engaged in doxing any police officers, but defended those who have. 

“They’re being revealed because we want to show how many officers are taking money from the city of Buffalo, abusing residents in the city of Buffalo and then going out to the safe suburbs where they don’t have to answer for their actions,” Gresham said.

Under the terms of their contract, Buffalo police are not required to live in the city. Protesters have demanded a residency requirement, however, and one has been proposed in the state Legislature by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Tim Kennedy, both Buffalo Democrats.

Hall, speaking again for himself and not the advisory board on which he serves, said “there’s a balance that must be reached” between “the safety and concerns” of police officers and the communities they serve.

“I don’t stand for anything that puts people in harm’s way, whether that’s publishing their address or brutalizing people on the job,” he said. “I don’t condone any sort of violence.”