As relations reach a boiling point, Buffalo residents urge Byron Brown to reform police department

Carol Kelley knew the police officers in her neighborhood off of East Ferry Street when she was a kid. When children in her Buffalo neighborhood got in trouble, police wouldn’t take them downtown to be booked and held in a juvenile center, she recalled. They would instead be taken back to a family member’s home.

“We had cops that cared about us in our neighborhood,” Kelley said. “Cops walked the beat. They knew the kids in the neighborhood. We knew them.”

Over the years, a rift opened between the police and the people – especially young people – in her neighborhood, said Kelley, the founder of Positive Youth of Tomorrow, a nonprofit that helps children with nowhere to go and offers them activities and support.

The community police officers who patrol the area try to engage with kids and are doing a good job, she said. But for the most part, patrol officers, who are the police that they most often interact with, rarely talk to kids unless they are treating them as suspects – and their attitudes towards police have become increasingly negative over that time.

“One of the things that is not communicated between youth and police is one understanding and respect for both groups,” said Kelley, who runs her nonprofit out of her apartment in Buffalo’s Kenfield-Langfield public housing complex.

Kelley is part of a growing chorus of voices questioning the Buffalo Police Department’s practices, with some going even further by calling on Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda to review their training methods and philosophy to see what they can do to address such tensions.

Civil rights lawyers, advocacy groups and residents have raised concerns over a lack of training on de-escalation and other techniques, limited transparency with little public information available on the department’s website, disproportionate traffic checkpoints and pedestrian stops in black neighborhoods, and the department’s failure to get accredited by the state.

The Brown administration and the city’s police department have offered little to reporters on what if any changes in policy or training they are planning in light of those concerns.

However, after a police swearing-in ceremony last week, Brown told City & State that his administration constantly reviews input from all groups in an effort to offer the best police force possible.

We feel that we’re focused on the continuous improvement of our police department, every single day,” he said.

Still, Buffalo residents have mixed views on the police. Open Buffalo, along with the Partnership for the Public Good and other advocacy groups, surveyed over 2,000 people as part of a report released last fall and found that many people think the police department is doing a better job than departments in some other big cities where violent incidents between police and civilians have drawn headlines. Yet distrust remains an issue in the Queen City. While 74 percent of respondents said they respect the police, 57 percent of people polled feel that police do not respect people of color and half of respondents said they feel police do not respect young people.

“If you haven’t built citizen engagement into the process in a real way, that’s not community-oriented policing. Community-oriented policing is not just diversity training.”

– Franchelle Hart, executive director for Open Buffalo

In a November interview, Franchelle Hart, executive director for Open Buffalo, said that the administration has been cooperative in some ways, but that major reforms are necessary to get a handle on the tensions, particularly in the neighborhoods where people of color live.

The department does have community policing values, and many officers work well with the community, but there is not enough being done to make a real impact, she said. “If you haven’t built citizen engagement into the process in a real way, that’s not community-oriented policing,” Hart said. “Community-oriented policing is not just diversity training.”

Hart did credit Brown, the city’s first African American mayor, with taking some steps in the right direction, pointing to the city’s 21st century scholarship program, which pays for academy training for minority officer candidates in an effort to increase diversity on the force.

“When you talk about the culture shift, we know that it’s not going to be an overnight policy win that fixes all of the problems,” Hart said. “We believe in working on the systems level to get to the change we want to see.”

Brown did not offer any specifics on policies being considered by the police department, nor did he say if any of the more than 30 recommendations listed in the white paper were being considered. But he did say that the changes outlined in the report are under review.

“We’re open to all suggestions,” Brown said “We’re looking at some of the suggestions they made and we’re looking at some of the suggestions that others have made, as well as looking at best practices from other police departments across the country.”

And, he said, advocacy groups and any citizens with concerns about policing are welcome to participate in monthly meetings at precincts to raise issues directly with police.

“We would like to see members of the community use that vehicle, that monthly opportunity, to meet with members of the police department,” Brown said.

Other advocates argue that the administration and police leadership have been trying to address those tensions, but that they have to also make sure they are keeping their officers and the community safe.

Dwayne Ferguson, the president of a mentorship program called Dads Anointing and Delivering Sons, has been working with the police department as a community liaison for years, trying to help defuse potentially explosive situations in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

He said that police often end up walking into situations where they could be in trouble in a split second, a dynamic that needs to be kept in mind during discussions around departmental reforms.

“We do our work and we have to let the police do their work in the community,” Ferguson said.

The responsibility also lies with citizens, who need to realize that police enforcement is sometimes disproportionately applied in different neighborhoods across the city, in part, because the police have limited resources and need to concentrate them where the most violent crime occurs, Ferguson said.

While it may not be fair that African Americans are pulled over and confronted by police at disproportionate rates, the most important thing is that citizens remain calm to avoid escalating the situation, said Ferguson, who is African American.

“We shouldn’t have to (deal with being stopped and confronted by police at a disproportionate rate),” he said. “We shouldn’t. But now, with the way things are, it’s almost at that level where you have to say I want to go home like the police officer wants to go home. But, right now anything can blow up and blow over where I might not make it back home.”

Brown, who campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform and has continued to support targeted policing, said that people in the neighborhoods that are most affected by violence call for stronger police presence.

“People who are living in neighborhoods that are experiencing crime, they want the police there, they want the enforcement, they want the crackdowns on the criminal activity,” Brown said. “That’s what we have tried to deliver in neighborhoods that have experienced some of these spikes in crime.”

And while Ferguson, who has worked in the past with organizations allied with the mayor, said he has great respect for the Buffalo Police Department, he also recalled a time when it seemed as though police had a more intimate relationship with the people in the neighborhoods where they work.

In praising the department’s community police officers, he said an expansion of that program – there are currently 11 dedicated community police officers on a force of more than 750 – could help cultivate the kind of relationships that he recalls people in his East Side neighborhood having with police when he was a boy.

“It’s not enough,” he said of the department’s community policing team.

This month, as part of its 2017 community agenda, the Partnership for the Public Good will focus on reforming the city’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations – the oversight committee charged with reviewing police conduct – to make it a more active and accountable tool for the community. Advocates in Albany are pushing to establish a resource center for best practices and support for community policing initiatives across the state.

Whether the Brown administration plans to work directly with any of these groups remains to be seen.

At her home in Kenfield-Langfield, Carol Kelley reminisced about some of the kids she helped get off the street. All but a few, she said, went on to live happy lives, even if things weren’t always easy for them.

As far as improving the relationship between people in her neighborhood and the police goes, she holds little hope. While the few community police officers that patrol her neighborhood do great work, the positive interactions are far outnumbered by tense stops and arrests for minor crimes, she said.

From what she’s seen over the years, the Buffalo Police Department has not fully committed to addressing the strain between law enforcement and the community.

“I’m shot in my hand. I’ve got a hole this big,” she said, the palms of her hands facing one another, about six inches apart. “All you’re doing is putting a Band-Aid on it.”