Another Voice: Deadly blizzard urgently demands that elected officials reimagine safety in Buffalo

This article was originally published in The Buffalo News. Read it here.

As of Jan. 2, 2023, at least 39 people in Erie County, the majority of whom are Black, have lost their lives in the deadliest blizzard to hit Buffalo in decades.

Though Buffalo is known for snow – it experienced another massive snowstorm just before Thanksgiving – the city was wildly unprepared to protect Buffalo’s most vulnerable communities from the blizzard’s ensuing devastation.

The resulting death, trauma and loss are no accident. They are the direct result of years of mismanaged city finances and extractive and punitive policies that deprioritized the health and safety of low-income and Black and brown people.

For days, the city’s uncoordinated blizzard response left tens of thousands of Buffalonians without heat, power or food. Its fleet of snowplows and trucks was not enough and left C-District and the East Side to be plowed last, if at all. Power outages swept the city, concentrated mostly on the East Side. Senior and public housing buildings flooded, exacerbating already deplorable living conditions.

Countless 911 calls went unanswered. Dozens died from exposure, from freezing in their own homes or cars, or while waiting for medical support that would never come.

The failure to enact restorative and preventative policies prior to the storm, such as the implementation of a large snowstorm and blizzard plan, investment in reliable and equitable safety technology, investment in sidewalk and street infrastructure, increasing the budget of the Department of Public Works, and increasing the inventory of emergency equipment and vehicles, positioned the city to spend disproportionate resources on policing. The BPD used roadblocks, ticketing and arrests to control Buffalonians during the blizzard.

This approach punished and profited from those who were forced to drive to access supplies, shelter, or to aid community members in need when the city would not. In some instances, it further endangered lives. Cariol Horne, who was famously fired by the Buffalo police after stopping a white officer from choking a Black man, was assaulted and arrested by the BPD when trying to assist several people who were forced to sit in the freezing snow during a police stop on Bailey Avenue.

The city must take accountability. While we support the mayor’s call for an impact study on the blizzard and Christopher Scanlon’s blizzard-related resolution, this is not enough. The city must proactively reassess its budget priorities to redefine safety in Buffalo and move away from punitive and extractive solutions. It can start by settling the yearslong federal lawsuit concerning the BPD’s excessive and racially discriminatory traffic enforcement tactics, restructuring the Department of Public Works and creating a separate office focused on transportation and traffic safety, improving the city’s street infrastructure and relegating traffic enforcement to unarmed, civilian safety officers instead of the BPD.

Jalonda Hill and Karina Tefft are with the Buffalo Fair Fines and Fees Coalition.