911 calls down 5%; traffic stops up 48%
You might imagine Buffalo police spend their shifts busting drug dealers, foiling burglaries and taking guns off the street.
There’s some of that, certainly.
But an analysis by Investigative Post of five years of 911 calls shows that sort of policing accounts for only a sliver of what cops do.
More than anything else, they hand out traffic tickets.
A lot fewer people have called Buffalo police about crime in recent years, according to our analysis.
The number of 911 calls for high-priority crimes — such as shots fired, domestic violence and assaults in progress — fell almost 21 percent between 2015 and 2019.
Citizen calls to 911 for all concerns — ranging from fights and drug-dealing to illegally parked cars and loud parties — dropped more than 5 percent.
Traffic stops, meanwhile, rose by nearly 48 percent.
The biggest increases in traffic stops were in predominantly poor neighborhoods on the city’s East Side and Lower West Side, as well as downtown. The smallest increases were in predominantly white neighborhoods in South and North Buffalo.
Traffic stops by location
|Police district, location||2019 traffic stops||Increase, 2015 to 2019|
|A DISTRICT: South Buffalo||3,198||32.7%|
|B DISTRICT: Downtown, Lower West Side, Lower East Side||4,913||75.4%|
|C DISTRICT: Central East Side||4,888||59.4%|
|D DISTRICT: North Buffalo||5,866||34.1%|
|E DISTRICT: Upper East Side||5,476||43.9%|
Source: Erie County Central Police Services
The rise in traffic stops coincides with a push by Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council to find new revenue to plug holes in the city budget, in part by handing out more traffic tickets and increasing fines and fees.
That disturbs Michael Powell, co-chair of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, a citizen panel that advises the Common Council.
“It hurts those communities, communities who are already economically struggling,” Powell said, after reviewing Investigative Post’s findings.
Investigative Post worked with Andy Bailey of Primary Data to analyze 911 calls to Buffalo police, using data obtained from Erie County Central Police Services. We focused on a five-year period, 2015 to 2019, leaving out last year’s pandemic-influenced results. That’s nearly 1.4 million calls.
We also looked at the department’s crime and arrest data, as well as budgets and staffing numbers.
Our findings were reviewed by a dozen people with expertise or a role in overseeing police: department officials, reform advocates, academics, and members of the Common Council, among others. To map the data, we enlisted Russell Weaver of the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab.
This is the picture that materialized: The number of uniformed officers has risen, and so has the overall cost of policing, even as crime rates, arrests and 911 call volumes have dropped.
Meanwhile, the Brown administration’s emphasis on traffic enforcement — the only significant revenue source the police department provides the city — continues to grow.
A question of priorities
To attorney Miles Gresham, the rise in traffic stops is evidence the city ought to rethink policing entirely.
Traffic stops frequently result in fines levied on those least able to afford them, Gresham said. They sometimes lead to unconstitutional searches of vehicles, drivers and passengers, he said.
Those searches can escalate into confrontations. And they require a significant investment of officer time.
A recent study by Partnership for the Public Good, Gresham’s employer, cites US Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicating:
- 62 percent of interactions between police and the public across the nation in 2015 arose from traffic stops and accidents.
- Another 30 percent of interactions resulted from various other noncriminal situations — medical emergencies, for example.
- Just 8 percent of interactions were the result of a citizen reporting a crime or an officer making an arrest.
“If we change what police respond to, we will need fewer police,” Gresham told Investigative Post. “And the police that remain can focus on real problems and real crime — like murders, like rapes, like domestic violence.”
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Buffalo’s department doesn’t publish breakdowns of how officers spend their workdays, according to Colleen Kristich, the author of the PPG report. However, the 911 data sheds some light.
When operators take a call for Buffalo police, they assign it a priority level. The scale ranges from 1 to 7, based on the story the caller tells. One is the most urgent. Seven is the least.
Virtually all the priority 7 calls are traffic stops called in by cops, not citizens:
911 calls decline, except for traffic enforcement
|Year||Total 911 Calls||Priority 1 & 2 Calls||Traffic Stops|
Source: Ere County Central Police Services.
In 2019, about 9.1 percent of 911 calls were traffic stops. By contrast, priority 1 and 2 calls, which involve the most serious crimes — domestic violence, for example, or shots fired — accounted for 5.9 percent of all 911 calls.
In fact, cops made 10 traffic stops for every gun-related call they responded to that year.
The changes in volume and types of calls varied by district:
- A District, which covers South Buffalo, recorded far fewer traffic stops than other districts, as well as the smallest increase in those stops. They also received the fewest priority 1 and 2 calls, as well as the largest percentage drop in those calls.
- B District, which includes downtown and the Lower East and West Sides, was the city’s busiest in 2019, and also posted the biggest increase in traffic stops — over 75 percent. Nonetheless, the district’s overall 911 call volume was virtually unchanged between 2015 and 2019, due to a considerable drop in the number of high- and mid-priority calls.
- C District, whose territory includes the Central East Side, saw the second-biggest jump in traffic stops — nearly 60 percent. Overall, however, the total number of calls 911 fell 3 percent.
- D District, covering the city’s northeast quarter, saw the biggest overall drop in calls — 8 percent. However, it also had the most traffic stops every year.
- All told, E District, which includes the northeast section of the city, received the most 911 calls over the five-year period. Nonetheless, the overall volume dropped 6.4 percent. That’s bigger than the drop in the city as a whole, and the second-biggest decrease by district.
The rise in traffic stops between 2015 and 2019 is in keeping with a nearly decade-long trend. According to the PPG report, Buffalo police wrote fewer than 18,000 traffic tickets a year on average between 2006 and 2012, Brown’s first seven years in office.
Over the next seven years, PPG found, the average rose to nearly 43,000 tickets per year.
Policing for profit
In November 2018, then Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana described the Brown administration’s focus on traffic enforcement as “mining for gold,” according to a 2019 Investigative Post report detailing the burden that focus placed on poor and minority residents.
In 2013, the Brown administration established a police checkpoint program, which the mayor said would increase traffic safety and remove guns and drugs from the streets.
The following year, the city negotiated an agreement with the state Department of Motor Vehicles allowing the city to adjudicate traffic citations, instead of the DMV, and keep a bigger share of fine revenue.
That agreement made traffic stops, including checkpoints, a profit center for the city.
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At the checkpoints, police — often members of the controversial Strike Force Unit — stopped cars and issued fines for violations that included tinted windows, broken tail lights, and expired insurance and vehicle registration cards.
According to a 2018 federal civil rights lawsuit, Strike Force also used checkpoints and other traffic stops as unconstitutional pretexts for searching vehicles, drivers and passengers, looking for evidence of other crimes, particularly guns and drugs.
The ongoing lawsuit, filed by Black Love Resists in the Rust, claims the checkpoints disproportionately targeted poor neighborhoods and people of color. The lawsuit cites police data from 2013 to 2017 showing that more than 85 percent of checkpoints were set up in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods.
The program tended to yield more traffic fines than felonies, according to departmental data obtained by Investigative Post. Over 12 weeks in 2017, police at checkpoints seized one gun and confiscated drugs five times, while issuing 386 tickets.
Meanwhile, collections soared from about $500,000 in 2014 to a high of more than $3 million in 2018.
In 2018, the Brown administration disbanded Strike Force, then ended the checkpoint program. Traffic stops declined somewhat afterward, according to the 911 data. But revenues from traffic fines held fairly steady until the pandemic hit.
Before he retired this summer, Captain Jeffrey Rinaldo told Investigative Post the department fields community complaints about traffic issues constantly, through 911 calls and at district chiefs’ meetings with block clubs. As a result, he said, Commissioner Byron Lockwood “has made traffic enforcement a priority.”
The increase in traffic stops is not about money, he said, nor is it about generating opportunities to search drivers and vehicles for evidence of other offenses.
“I wouldn’t say the emphasis is, ‘Let’s do traffic stops so that we can get gun and drug arrests,’” Rinaldo said.
“Do gun and drug arrests result from traffic stops and other calls of that nature that started off as one thing and wind up becoming something else? Yes, absolutely, they do.”
Spending on police increases
Property crime in Buffalo fell more than 12 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures. Violent crime fell almost 26 percent.
In the same five-year period, the full price of policing to the city — the sum of the department’s annual operating budget plus pension costs — rose 25 percent.
The number of cops on the force has risen, too, from 2015’s all-time low of 700 to 748 this year.
Since 2006, the police department’s budget has grown at three times the pace of other city services, an increase fueled largely by the cost of retirement benefits.
University District Council Member Rasheed Wyatt told Investigative Post the sheer cost of the police department, coupled with public pressure for police reforms, demands consideration of alternative public safety models.
“I think we have an opportunity to right-size our police department,” said Wyatt, who chairs the Council’s Finance Committee.
“Unfortunately, when we look at the police budget, we don’t start quantifying what we’re paying and what we’re getting.”
“A budget is a statement of priorities,” Niagara District Council Member David Rivera, chair of the Police Oversight Committee, told Investigative Post. “And public safety always tops the list.”
Rivera served 25 years as a Buffalo cop, retiring as a detective sergeant in 2007 to run for office. He told Investigative Post 911 calls are a valuable measure of what the community wants and needs from police, and a useful tool for managing resources and measuring the department’s efficiency.
But he cautioned against relying on 911 data alone to illustrate how police spend their time.
“You patrol the streets. You check up on the businesses. And if you don’t get a call that night, it doesn’t mean your job isn’t important,” said Rivera, who chairs the Council’s Police Oversight Committee.
“If you go a night without a stabbing or a shooting, that’s great,” he said. “Does it mean you need fewer police? Perhaps not. Maybe you prevented a crime just by being visible and responsive.”
The department recently has implemented changes, according to Rinaldo. He cited the creation of the Behavioral Health Unit last summer, to change the way police respond to people suffering mental health crises. He also noted the creation of an online reporting tool, whereby a crime victim can generate a police report for an insurance claim without calling 911 and waiting for an officer to respond.
In the PPG report, Kristich points to Los Angeles, where police are withdrawing from traffic enforcement in response to budget cuts and public outcry about traffic stops that turn violent.
Not in Buffalo, according to Rinaldo.
“There’s no such thing as a routine traffic stop,” he said. “You never know who it is that you’re stopping in that car, what they may have just done, what they may have just committed.”
Like other cities, Rinaldo said, Buffalo is purchasing electronic solutions to traffic enforcement — red-light cameras, speed-enforcement cameras, cameras on the outside of school buses, license plate readers.
“But to say that the police department will no longer enforce vehicle and traffic law?” Rinaldo said. “No, I don’t see that happening.”