A retired Buffalo police lieutenant testified in April he’d heard his colleagues use racist epithets when dealing with Black members of the public.
“Probably every officer” had used the “N word” at one point or another, according to retired Lt. Thomas Whelan, a former supervisor with the department’s controversial Strike Force unit.
He admitted he’d used it himself.
“Have I ever said it?” Whelan said in a deposition for a lawsuit accusing the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Police Department of racially discriminatory policing.
“Yes, I have, obviously. I’m a human being.”
Loose oversight and discipline.
Little to no training on how to conduct an effective and legal traffic safety checkpoint.
Those are takeaways from hundreds of pages of testimony given by Whelan and four other retired Buffalo police officers, all former members of the Buffalo Police Department’s now disbanded Strike Force and Housing units. Investigative Post obtained transcripts of the dispositions from lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
The five officers were deposed this spring and summer as part of a federal civil lawsuit challenging the department’s checkpoint program, which was created by Mayor Byron Brown’s administration in 2012 and operated largely by those units.
According to the lawsuit, the program disproportionately subjected Blacks and other citizens of color to “baseless traffic stops and exploitative ticketing,” which yielded a spike in revenue for the cash-strapped city. The stops were frequently used as pretexts for searching and impounding vehicles, as well as arresting drivers and passengers, the lawsuit claimed.
The checkpoints most often were set up in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, according to data assembled by lawyers for the plaintiffs and the depositions of the five officers.
“The documents and depositions we have taken in this case repeatedly show how the BPD has unconstitutionally targeted Black people in deeply harmful and dehumanizing ways as a matter of standard operating procedure,” said Chinyere Ezie, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of three organizations representing plaintiffs in the suit.
Retired Chief Kevin Brinkworth — at one point in charge of Strike Force, Housing, and the department’s Schools unit — testified that the traffic checkpoints were focused on the city’s predominantly Black East Side, because that’s where the city’s high-crime areas were.
Use of racist language
While insisting he did not brook racial discrimination in his unit, Whelan defended the use of racial slurs as a symptom of “frustration … not racial bias,” an acceptable means of gaining a citizen’s “compliance” and an alternative to arrest.
“[A] good verbal thrashing beats going to jail any day,” Whelan said.
Whelan retired just months after Strike Force was disbanded, after 21 years on the force. The unit was disbanded in February 2018 after Investigative Post reported on its abusive practices.
In his deposition with attorney Anjana Malhotra of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Whelan said he’d heard other officers use the N-word during interaction with Black citizens and had used it himself:
Malhotra: Okay. And did you ever hear any officers use any language that you would consider racially biased?
Whelan: Listen, I was a cop for 22 years. The only answer to that is yes. Obviously, I heard people say things they shouldn’t have been saying.
Malhotra: What kind of things would you hear people say that they shouldn’t?
Whelan: Come on.
Malhotra: This is a deposition, Mr. Whelan. You have to answer the question.
Whelan: Using the N word, degrading people. That’s it.
Whelan: You know what, I’ll just answer your next question. Have I ever said it? Yes, I have, obviously. I’m a human being.
Whelan said officers might resort to racist language in situations “where there’s a ton of street commotion and there’s been a shooting and there’s people running, screaming and cops are yelling foul language and we’re getting it right back in our faces too.”
He acknowledged that the use of racial epithets was “demeaning” and “not appropriate,” but preferable to arrest or jail.
“[I]f the worst thing that happened on that day is that someone of these police officers, myself included, yelled a racial epithet back at them, I already said that’s a win,” he said.
“[N]obody got cracked in the head with a nightstick, I didn’t have to fill out a use of force form.”
“The fact that BPD officers direct racial slurs at people of color with impunity is abhorrent and unacceptable in and of itself,” Malhotra said in a press release issued by plaintiffs’ attorneys Monday morning.
“But that BPD leadership has not just refused to report or discipline officers who use such derogatory language, but also defend it as a legitimate tactic to bring people of color into ‘compliance’ is part and parcel of the dehumanizing culture at the BPD that drives the deeply discriminatory police practices at the heart of this lawsuit — and racial violence more generally.”
The lawsuit was filed in June 2018. The plaintiffs are an activist organization, Black Love Resists in the Rust, and a host of individuals who claim their rights were violated by officers at checkpoints.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused the city’s attorneys of “slow-walking” response to their deposition and discovery demands, which include huge troves of emails and data. The assistant corporation counsel assigned to the case, Robert Quinn, has frequently pleaded for leniency from the court regarding missed deadlines, because he was handling the far-reaching civil-rights case alone.
This past January, the city hired the law firm Hodgson Russ to assist, according to court records. Depositions began this spring, four years after the lawsuit was filed.
The five officers spent most of their depositions explaining how the units and the mechanics of a checkpoints. They discussed how and why a car might get impounded, for example, how citizen complaints were handled, and who reported to whom.
In his deposition, Brinkworth described his management of Strike Force and Housing as minimal. He testified he had little input in selecting checkpoint locations, for example. Those choices were made by then Commissioner Daniel Derenda and his deputies, he testified, or captains and lieutenants working below Brinkworth.
Serafini testified that he gave no instruction to his officers on conducting searches and seizures, nor was he aware of any such training. He said he took no steps to make certain his officers were not engaged in racial profiling. He described Strike Force as operating with little supervision.
Both Serafini and Quinn described a lax disciplinary process, in which citizens’ complaints — whether alleging rude or racist treatment or unlawful search and detention — seldom resulted in a careful investigation, formal charges, or punishment.
All five were shown emails from their superiors — Derenda and his deputy commissioners — that focused on increasing the number of tickets, vehicle impoundments and arrests at the checkpoints.
In one, Derenda wrote, “Let’s make a big push in the next five days to hit 1,000 arrests in 50 days.” In another, former Deputy Commissioner Kim Beaty indicated she expected officers working certain East Side neighborhoods to write six parking tickets, two vehicle and traffic law summons and six violations of city ordinances per shift.
Roberts, the Strike Force captain, said such demands were “ludicrous” — “What if there are no illegally parked cars?” he said — and insisted he didn’t remember the directive and would not have passed it on to the officers he supervised.
Brinkworth, on the other hand, described the lucrative practice of issuing multiple tickets to vehicles pulled over at checkpoints, including a separate ticket for each tinted window on a single car.
According to the lawsuit, between 2012 and 2019, drivers from predominantly Black zip codes were eight times as likely to be issued multiple tickets in a single stop compared to drivers from predominantly white zip codes.
The checkpoint program, as operated by Strike Force and Housing, contributed to a boom in police ticket-writing and revenue. The boom was in part driven by the city getting the state’s permission in 2015 to adjudicate traffic and vehicle infractions itself, which meant the city got to keep more money from fines instead of paying most of it to the state.
In the year before the city got the state’s permission, police issued about 32,000 tickets and took in about $500,000 in revenue. In the year that followed — with the help of the checkpoint program — police issued nearly 52,000 tickets that yielded $2.8 million in revenue.
The checkpoint program was never formally ended, but it has been curtailed after reporting by Investigative Post.
Four of the five deposed officers retired the year Strike Force was disbanded. Roberts retired in 2015.
“[T]hese units all have a shelf life,” Whelan opined in his deposition. “They all die out after about four years.”
“The way they all die is because they all generate complaints by the people that are being arrested or, you know, receiving the enforcement end of the unit.”
Eventually, he said, those complaints escape the department’s internal disciplinary process and make their way to Council members and the mayor.
“And I believe that the political part of the city decides ‘okay, we’re going to do away with this because it’s generating too many complaints,’ ” he said.