Citizens Voice Concerns at Public Policing Forum

By Nanette D. Massey

The next two forums are Wednesday, August 29th at the Niagara Library on Porter Avenue (6 pm) and Thursday, September 6th at the Gloria Parks Community Center (7pm) on Main Street in the University Heights area.

In March it was announced that eleven private citizens were selected and would serve as a community advisory board to make recommendations to the Buffalo Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee. Working with Niagara district council member and committee chair David A. Rivera, the group hosted their first of three public forums Tuesday, August 21st, at Jefferson Avenue’s Merriweather Library with an audience numbering just under 50. Representing the new board at this gathering were Dan Johnson, Ben Nelson, De’Jon Hall, Steven Sanyu, Jonathan Manes, radio station WBLK’s Yasmin Young, Ari Moore, and Dr. Danielle Johnson. Common Council President Darius Pridgen was also in attendance.

The overall mood of the attendees was less than optimistic, to say the least. Sonia Walker, teacher at Futures Academy, remembered a time when community police officers walked kids to school on a daily basis, and came two or three times a year to speak with third grade classes. She suggested returning to this effort as a way to foster familiarity between the police and young children. “The time has come for serious soul searching” within our city’s police force, said Buffalo resident Carolyn Yelverton.  Yelverton advocated for mandatory body cameras, and making it a fireable offense for an officer to turn their camera off. She also suggested sending officers on leave without pay while shooting incidents are being investigated. “The government works for us, we don’t work for them, and they need to realize that.”

India Walton, who is on staff at Open Buffalo, spoke this evening as a private citizen. She questioned this advisory council’s potential effectiveness given, she said, that the current body responsible for holding police accountable in City Hall has shown no potency. “Community policing is not soccer balls and book bags, or photos at barbecue’s. Community policing is getting out of your vehicle and walking around and getting to know your neighbors.” Walton backed Buffalo city residency requirements for newly hired officers. Dorothea Franklin began her remarks by flatly denouncing the board and the meeting as smoke and mirrors. “You guys don’t have any power. So what is the purpose, why are we even here?” She blamed embedded political ties where one hand washes the other, and quiet deals made downtown with construction developers, for stagnation.”The Buffalo Police Department is a broken wheel and the Common Council has done nothing to fix it.”

A woman named Denise also recounted with skepticism the story of returning home one evening and being swarmed by three officers because the car parked in front of her house had been reported stolen. “You cannot go to the people that create the problem and expect that they are going to solve it.” Denise said the same concerns being discussed now have been presented to officials over and over again at community meetings for decades. She encouraged the assemblage to wield their power instead at the voting booth. Denise’s, and others’, lack of faith in expecting a solid result from this committee’s actions appeared to be confirmed by the experience of Lesley Haynes.

In 2013, Haynes told of also being selected as a citizen representative to an advisory board to the Council regarding police interactions. This board hosted a meeting in each one of the city’s districts and presented a summation of recommendations to City Hall. To her knowledge, the summation was never even read. No one in office ever responded or even acknowledged the report in any way.

Retired Black police officer Theodore Kirkland gave a history lesson to put today’s current situation in context. Anthony Masiello, Buffalo’s mayor from 1994 to 2005, sent a bill that passed through the majority black Common Council just prior to leaving office. With African American Byron Brown showing as his heir apparent, this bill stripped the mayor and the police commissioner of the ability to choose their own appointees as detectives for the first time in the history of the police force’s 1817 inception. “Listen to what I said. All the other years when a mayor was in office, he could pick his detectives….So now we have people coming from suburbia.

They don’t know the people of the community and the people of the community don’t know them.” Kirkland reported meeting recently with the district attorney over lunch who said he only knows of one black detective on the city’s Homicide Squad at this time. Retired legislator Betty Jean Grant, who was on the Council at that time, was present and apologized for her part in the passing of that bill. She also took a moment to acknowledge officer Armonde “Moe” Badger as a stark example of “one of the best community police officers in Buffalo.”

Members of the advisory board come from all walks of life including law, community activism, university research and social work. An audience member questioned whether members of the panel actually live in the city and could relate personally to the stories being told. Radio personality Yasmin Young relayed accounts of growing up in Tucson, Arizona, where she was arrested at least twelve times for “mouthing off” to police, being mistaken as a gang member, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I have been slammed to the ground….I have experienced what a lot of people have experienced–personally.”

Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo criminal defense attorney Benjamin Nelson felt compelled to participate on this advisory board “given my professional experience viewing a lot of court cases that start out with exposure to a police search.” The Western New York Law Center is one of the parties currently charging the Buffalo Police Department in federal court with staging, by design, more than 85% of their random traffic checkpoints in largely non-white neighborhoods. He has seen firsthand the effects of the authorities’ uneven distribution of “reasonable suspicion” searches. “There’s no question that they’re heavily slanted to one side of town,” he said. “That impedes the detectives’ later ability to obtain cooperation from residents for more serious crimes like murder.”

The next two forums are Wednesday, August 29th at the Niagara Library on Porter Avenue (6 pm) and Thursday, September 6th at the Gloria Parks Community Center (7pm) on Main Street in the University Heights area.