Councilman recalls racism as a cop
Add Niagara District Councilman David Rivera to the list of Buffalo police officers who have described a racist “culture” within the city’s police department.
In an interview with Investigative Post two years ago, Rivera — who chairs the Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee — remembered the thrill of joining the Buffalo Police Department 30 years ago.
“When I came on from the Academy, I was excited,” he said. “I wanted to hit the street running. I wanted to get in the police car, I wanted to patrol, I wanted to answer calls. I wanted to stay busy.”
He was quickly confronted by a department that seemed to tolerate the racist language and behavior of “a few bad cops” toward both civilians and fellow officers.
“I remember the things they would say and the way they treated African Americans,” he said. “There was a culture there, the way they spoke.”
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Rivera retired when he was elected to his first term on the Council in 2007, after 25 years on the force. His first partner was Juan Phillips, who is Black and still on the force. As rookies, he and Phillips were stationed on the West Side — “the old Precinct 10,” Rivera said.
“I remember him getting into some stuff at the station house because someone called him a name,” Rivera recalled. “And I’m not going to repeat what they called him.”
Last week, two Buffalo police officers and a mental health worker who worked with the Buffalo Police Department filed a lawsuit accusing their captain of unleashing a racist rant in police headquarters.
The week before that, Investigative Post reported on a deposition for another lawsuit in which a retired Buffalo police lieutenant described frequent use of the “N word” by himself and other cops.
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Rivera said the discriminatory attitudes he witnessed as a young patrol officer weren’t limited to the station house. They manifested in the way some officers treated community members, too.
“I didn’t see them do anything bad, but I saw the attitude and the way they spoke about people,” he said. “‘Speak English, you’re in America’ kind of thing … that’s the kind of culture that was there.”
Rivera volunteered these memories in an interview about a variety of policing issues, ranging from budget allocations to 911 response times.
In a phone interview Tuesday, he noted that the police department has changed since he joined its ranks 40 years ago.
“That was the old culture. The police department has come a long way,” he said.
“But there are remnants of that culture that shouldn’t be tolerated.”
In the interview two years ago — and again on Tuesday — Rivera expressed his frustration that potentially problematic applicants managed to get hired onto the force despite a battery of screening measures.
“You have a background check, a psychological test … you have a lie detector test, you have your credit check, you have your references,” he said. “And with all that, you still get bad cops in the police department.”
He wondered whether new recruits managed to conceal their biases, or whether they were changed by the department’s culture.
“You might go into the Academy, and you’re a good kid and thinking all the right things, then you come out and there’s this culture. And either you change the culture or you assimilate into that culture,” he said.
Rivera said most of the officers he worked with were good cops whose reputations were “tarnished” by the behavior of those “few bad cops.” He said it’s important that good cops “stand up” when they encounter racism or other misconduct in their ranks.
“I’d like to think that people will say, ‘Hey, no … I’m not going to be a part of that. You’re not going to treat that person that way when you’re with me … I’m not going to lose my job and my career and affect my future and family because you’re the way you are.’
“I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to let that culture change who I am.”
According to retired Lieutenant Thomas Whelan’s deposition, allegations of racist language rarely, if ever, resulted in consequences for the officers involved. Rivera said he was frustrated by the department’s failures to discipline or fire bad cops — whether for racism or the use of excessive force.
“I believe if you are given power and authority, then they should hold you even more accountable when you mess up,” Rivera said.
“When you’re getting power and authority over people’s freedoms and people’s lives, and you abuse that power and that authority, I think the consequences should be more severe.”