Disturbing police testimony demands action
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
The toxic culture that permeates the Buffalo Police Department is now in the open.
The use of the N word by cops. A lack of training to stop police from doing the wrong thing, and lack of accountability when they do.
The allegations aren’t being leveled by department critics. Rather, they’ve been described, under oath, by police themselves, including those in supervisory positions.
Investigative Post has been reporting on problems within the department since 2016. A lack of proper training. A failure to investigative citizen complaints against officers. The unconstitutional practices of special street crime units. The targeting of Black motorists in order to raise revenue for the city. A contract with the police union that limits management’s ability to manage the troops or discipline them when they step out of line. And, the deaths of four men of color since 2017 as the result of altercations with police. (One could argue we’ve had our own Ferguson, several times over.)
Geoff Kelly reported Monday on the testimony of five retired police captains, lieutenants and chiefs, who gave depositions in the lawsuit filed in federal court against the city and its police department alleging racially discriminatory and unconstitutional practices.
A couple of passages stood out to me:
“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.
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 …
In his deposition, [Chief Kevin] 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.
[Captain Philip] 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 [Lt. Michael] 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.
Geoff followed up his story by interviewing two lawyers for the plaintiffs, Anjana Malhotra of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Keisha Williams, Western New York Law Center.
“Lieutenant Whelan’s testimony was really shocking,” said Malhotra. “The fact that Buffalo Police Department officers direct racial slurs towards people of color with immunity is absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable in and of itself.”
Whelan, she continued, “did not just refuse to report or discipline officers who use this derogatory language. He defended it as a legitimate tactic to bring people of color into compliance.
“This is all part and parcel of dehumanizing culture at the BPD that drives the deeply discriminatory police practices that are at the heart of this lawsuit.”
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I spoke Monday evening with a veteran cop whose opinion I respect. He told me he found Whelan’s testimony to be at odds with his experience. Using the N word in street encounters “would almost start a riot” and wasn’t anything he witnessed during his years on patrol. He added, however, that he had little knowledge of how the Strike Force and Housing units operated.
Our 2017 story on Strike Force provided a flavor of the unit’s method of operation. According to court testimony from one East Side resident whose house was raided, an officer responded to his protest by saying: “We work for the mayor. We’re Strike Force. We can do whatever the fuck we want to do.”
(Five months after our investigation published, the department disbanded Strike Force.)
Williams said her review of testimony and documents left her struck by “the failure to train officer officers” and “lack of oversight, the lack of accountability.”
Mayor Byron Brown instituted a number of modest reforms two years ago, in the wake of street protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. They didn’t address the core issues that the recent testimony has laid bare. And some of the reforms have yet to take root, Malhotra said.
“There’s still a big gap between the purported reforms that the city is adopting and the reality on the ground of how folks experience policing,” she said.
There’s also the continued tolerance of officers who violate department policies. Case in point: the wild chase, with guns blazing, that police went on this spring. Departmental rules forbid firing shots in such a situation, but it didn’t stop police from firing so many times that no fewer than nine patrol cars were riddled with bullets. No word on any cops being disciplined.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court more than four years ago and Malhotra and Williams said of the city: “There’s been a lot of foot-dragging, a lot of stalling on turning over documents.”
Malhotra and Williams said they’ve deposed more than a dozen police officers, including former Commissioner Daniel Derenda. About 10 more officials, including Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia and his boss, the mayor, have yet to be questioned.
Brown, in particular, has a lot of explaining to do.
He’s been mayor for nearly 17 years, plenty of time to address problems in the department. He’s done next to nothing, as evidenced by his administration’s failure to make a serious effort to negotiate changes in the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association to eliminate provisions that thwart good policing and protect bad cops.
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Moreover, it was his administration that agreed to set up the Strike Force and Housing units, which defense lawyers said conducted themselves as “cowboys” and “vigilantes.” And it was the mayor’s team that implemented the checkpoint program, accompanied by big increases in fines and other penalties, that targeted drivers in low-income, minority neighborhoods.
The Common Council is not without fault.
It went along with Brown’s initiatives, especially the punitive penalties for traffic violations, and its Police Advisory Committee meets only two or three times a year and rarely tackles substantive issues. Moreover, the committee has yet to propose any meaningful reforms.
Malhotra said documents and depositions show city leaders are “well aware” of “discriminatory patterns and practices by its police officers.”
People can complain about white racists cops, but let’s keep in mind that their boss is Black, as is the president of the Common Council. The chairman of the Police Advisory Committee is Hispanic.
Where have these leaders been and what are they going to do to reform — I mean, really reform — the police department?
Turning a blind eye will no longer work. Not with the damning testimony that’s coming out.