Lawyers want to question 5 Buffalo cops who ticketed minority drivers the most

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

Buffalo police officer active in the Strike Force unit that patrolled minority neighborhoods wrote almost 12,000 traffic tickets over an eight-year period. More than 70% of them went to Black and brown motorists.

One of his partners on the Strike Force issued 85% of his tickets to drivers who were Black or Hispanic.

They were among five officers who issued a total 31,046 tickets from 2012-2020. Around 72% went to motorists identified as Black or Hispanic. Less than 7% went to drivers identified as white.

The figures seemed out of whack for a city that the U.S. Census Bureau says is roughly 48% white, 33% Black and 12% Latino or Hispanic.

The figures were compiled, using city data, by lawyers pressing a broad lawsuit against City Hall and the police department. The suit claims that the true intent of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s specially created Strike Force was to pull revenue out of minority neighborhoods, East Buffalo in particular.

Sworn testimony from city financial officials indicates they regularly monitored how many tickets Buffalo police officers issued, both when the Strike Force was setting up traffic-enforcement checkpoints and after the Strike Force was deactivated late in 2017.

An email cited in court papers shows that then-Finance and Administration Commissioner Donna Estrich learned in February 2018 that ticket revenue would top $10,000 a day the following month. Her quick response was, “I love it.”

In pretrial testimony, retired police officials have defended the Strike Force’s work, and Brown’s current police commissioner, Joseph Gramaglia, has said his officers don’t target minorities in enforcing the law.

In November, after The Buffalo News reported that a retired lieutenant had testified that a coarse racial slur against Black people was in widespread use among officers, the mayor responded by saying his administration does not tolerate discriminatory language by employees.

Lawyers for the group Black Love Resists in the Rust presented the ticket data in court papers in an attempt to lengthen the list of officers and city officials they would like to depose. They want to learn, among other things, how the officers were instructed to go about their jobs, and the extent to which finance officials stressed the need for revenue.

Lawyers defending the city say Black Love Resists has already been allowed to take twice the number of depositions allowed by the federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and many went beyond the seven-hour time limit.

As for the five officers who, the data shows, wrote most of their tickets to Black and brown drivers, the lawyers say Black Love Resists has not shown how they are privy to information that the many officers already deposed did not have.

The city’s lawyers, with the Hodgson Russ law firm, made similar arguments to blunt attempts to depose two other officers who ticketed members of Black Love Resists, and to depose former Finance Commissioner Estrich and traffic violations prosecutor Octavio Villegas. Black Love Resists has other ways to obtain the information they want, the lawyers said. The city has already provided documents showing the total sum of fines from traffic violations, the lawyers wrote, urging the judge to turn down the request.

The federal complaint claims that a racially discriminatory method of traffic enforcement was implemented by a “large number” of defendants over nearly a decade. According to the data presented in the recent court brief, Officer Michael Acquino issued 85% of his tickets to Black and Hispanic motorists; Officer Richard Hy issued 71% of his tickets to Blacks and Hispanics; Officer Kelvin Sharpe, who wrote almost 12,000 tickets from 2012-2020, at least twice as much as any of the other four, gave 71% to Blacks and Hispanics; Officer Justin Tedesco wrote 63% to those groups; and Officer Andrew Whiteford, 62%.

Around 7% of their tickets were written for white motorists, and when multiple tickets were issued in a stop, the five wrote more to Black and Hispanic motorists than whites, the data shows. At various stages of their careers, all were members of the police department’s Strike Force or its Housing Unit, which complemented the Strike Force, or both. They are still on the force.

The Black Love Resists lawyers have contended that Black and Hispanic drivers receive the most tickets because police set up most of their traffic-safety checkpoints in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods under the guise of crime-fighting. When filing the lawsuit in 2018, the lawyers asserted that more than 85% of checkpoints took place in neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or Latino.

The lawyers for Black Love Resists suggest the imbalance could have been even more severe if the race of all motorists had been entered into data. The lawyers mined data from a tracking system dating to 2012, when officers entered the race of the motorist if they knew it, and a new tracking system that also could note the race of a motorist if it had been provided during some previous interaction with Buffalo police.

The driver’s race was not entered for 19% of the more than 31,000 tickets that the five officers issued.