Reformers pushing for police referendum
They’ve lost hope that Buffalo’s elected officials will make the police reforms activists have advocated since last summer. So a coalition of groups and individuals is seeking to bypass City Hall entirely and take one of those reforms directly to voters.
The coalition seeks to put a referendum on this November’s general election ballot. The referendum would create a new police review commission with the power to investigate complaints against officers, mete out discipline and review departmental policies and budgets.
It’s a recommendation put forth last June by the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, one of three police oversight bodies in city government, none of which investigates police misconduct or is empowered to make binding recommendations to the department.
VOICE Buffalo is coordinating the referendum effort for the coalition, which also includes Partnership for the Public Good, Citizen Action of WNY, the WNY Law Center, the WNY Peace Center, the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, VOCAL NY, and Free the People WNY. Also assisting are attorneys Stephanie Cole Adams and Heidi I. Jones.
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Many of the organizations met with Mayor Byron Brown and members of the Common Council during last summer’s protests, as the mayor attempted to respond to protesters’ demands for police reform. At the core of their recommendations was a new police oversight structure, independent of the mayor and the Council, equipped with subpoena power, its own legal counsel and a budget.
That particular recommendation met resistance, Kartika Carr of Voice Buffalo told Investigative Post.
“Basically, we were told that the oversight model that we wanted, which was the policy recommended by the Police Advisory Board, was too much for the community to have,” Carr said. “They didn’t think that the community needed that type of power over police or public officials.”
Advocates were told there were legal and contractual obstacles to the oversight body the Police Advisory Board recommended. Further, Carr said, they were told by elected officials their constituents didn’t want that kind of police reform.
By last fall, Carr said, a coalition of groups decided to put that assertion to the test.
Getting a referendum on the ballot is not easy to do. Here’s how it works, for an effort driven by citizens:
- First, you circulate a petition. You need qualifying signatures equal to 10 percent of the total votes cast by city voters in the last governor’s race. Currently, that’s 7,152 signers registered to vote in Buffalo, regardless of party affiliation.
- Next, you file your petition with the city clerk. The clerk submits the petition to the Common Council, with an opinion as to its legitimacy in form and number of signatures.
- The Common Council then has 60 days to act. The Council can vote to accept the petition, in which case the question is put on the ballot in the next general election. The Council can also reject the petition or take no action at all, which amounts to the same thing.
- If the Council rejects the petition or takes no action, you go back to the public for more signatures. This time, you need 5 percent of the votes cast in the last governor’s race, or 3,576 signatures.
- The new petition goes to the city clerk. If the clerk determines the petition is valid, the question goes on the ballot.
The organizers aim to gather 10,000 signatures by the beginning of July. Two weeks ago, they began placing petitions in businesses around the city and going door to door in neighborhoods, an activity Carr said will pick up as the weather improves and COVID restrictions loosen. Carr said they have “a few hundred” signatures now.
If the Council fails to accept their petition, organizers said, they’re prepared to gather a second round of signatures in September.
The last time the City Charter was amended by referendum was 2002, when voters approved a proposal to reduce the size of the Common Council from 13 members to nine, eliminating four citywide-elected seats. The measure was controversial because it tilted the balance of power in city government in favor of the mayor’s office and three of the four citywide-elected Council seats were held by African Americans, many of whom felt the measure diminished their community’s power in City Hall.
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Changing the charter by referendum was a more common part of the political conversation 20 years ago than it is today.
In 2001, then Masten District Council Member Antoine Thompson floated the idea of a referendum to extend district Council members’ terms from two to four years — including his own — immediately instead of waiting until 2003, as the city’s new charter dictated. His idea went nowhere.
That new charter, the first comprehensive overhaul of city government since 1927, was adopted by referendum in 1999.
That same year Crystal Peoples, now the state Assembly majority leader, advocated for a separate referendum amending the charter to create exactly the kind of police oversight body the organizers of the current ballot initiative effort are proposing. (Peoples had been arrested by Buffalo police when she attempted to intervene on behalf of a neighbor during a domestic disturbance call. The charges were later dropped.) That proposed referendum, like Thompson’s, did not materialize.
Carr said the ballot initiative is intended, in part, to demonstrate the political will of voters to elected officials. Thousands of signatures on a petition speak loudly, she said.
“I think this is just the biggest way of showing them how many people actually want [police reform],” she said. “If you don’t do this, what do you really champion?”
“The fact that we need to do an end-run around the Common Council to get these basic protections in place is stunning,” Adams, who is collecting signatures at her Grant Street law office, told Investigative Post. “But hearts and minds are changing every day, so hopefully we’ll get the signatures we need to engineer this fix into our charter.”
At least one elected official appears amenable to the coalition’s ballot initiative, should it deliver a petition to the Council. University District Council Member Rasheed Wyatt attempted to add a new police oversight body to the police reform proposal the mayor sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 1, the deadline the governor set for municipalities to adopt a plan or risk losing state funding.
Wyatt’s amendment was shot down during a contentious debate in which Wyatt and Common Council President Darius Pridgen objected to the lack of public review allowed for the mayor’s reform plan. The commission charged with drafting the plan released its draft just a week before it was due, allowed just four days for public comments and made no allowance for how those comments would be reflected in the final proposal.
It’s a shortcoming the state Attorney General’s office noted in a letter to Brown on March 25. Waiting to release the draft until a few days before the April 1 deadline “likely hindered the opportunity for meaningful public comment.”
The Attorney General also expressed support for the “thoughtful, detailed proposal … for independent oversight and review of officer misconduct” advanced last June by the Buffalo Police Advisory Board.
“The City should seriously consider its recommendations,” the Attorney General’s office wrote.
A group called Buffalo Citizens for Council Accountability sent letters this week to the Attorney General and the governor, asking them to reject the mayor’s proposal and send the city back to the drawing board.
“Insufficient opportunity for community input and late draft submission to the Buffalo Common Council for review resulted in a hasty vote to pass an incomplete and poorly researched police reform plan that neither addresses the needs of the community nor satisfies” the governor’s executive order mandating police reform, the group said in a statement to Investigative Post.
This week Wyatt reiterated his request — first made 11 months ago — that the city’s law department research and draft a proposal for the creation of an independent police oversight board.
“Unfortunately, this significant legislation was left out of” the mayor’s submission to the governor’s office, Wyatt wrote. “However, we must continue our efforts … in reforming a system long overdue.”