Racial profiling in Buffalo traffic enforcement hard to gauge with imperfect data

The following excerpts were reprinted from a News 4 Investigates’ article. Read the full piece by Daniel Telvock.

Most law enforcement agencies in New York, including the Buffalo Police Department, do not consistently collect the race of drivers ticketed by officers, if they collect it at all.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told News 4 Investigates that the state would have to mandate the collection of race for traffic tickets or Central Police Services would have to contact the state to begin tracking race.

“It’s nowhere to be found on the traffic summons,” Gramaglia said. “There is not a box for that. It’s a state traffic ticket, it’s not a City of Buffalo ticket.”

However, New York State Police use the same database system as Buffalo, and the agency for years has collected race of the drivers ticketed for traffic violations.  

Turns out, Buffalo police can, too. And apparently, the police commissioner was unaware that it can be done.

News 4 Investigates has learned that the Buffalo Police Department, and 26 other law enforcement agencies that use the same TraCS database, have the capability to record race on their internal records for traffic tickets.  

In fact, some Buffalo police officers are actively doing it, but not consistently.

“Without doubt the Buffalo Police Department right now with current technology that they already have could record the race of the people to whom they are giving traffic tickets,” said Claudia Wilner, director of litigation and advocacy at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

She said Buffalo cops recorded the race of the drivers in about 20% to 25% of the tickets they write, on average, according to data through 2019 that Wilner’s team obtained for the lawsuit.

And News 4 Investigates discovered that so far this year, Buffalo officers have recorded the race of drivers even more often that in past years.

Erie County Central Police Services data from January through April of this year shows that Buffalo police officers recorded the race of drivers on 51% of the tickets in TraCS. That’s 2,680 of the 5,215 tickets officers have written so far through April.

“We know from the anecdotal data that we already have that the disparities are huge,” Wilner said about traffic ticket data in Buffalo. “And the city has been avoiding for years trying to really shed a light on what has been going on with policing in Black communities in Buffalo.”

Anjana Malhotra, senior attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, is also part of the team suing the city. She said there is an unchecked problem of discrimination within the police force that has festered without any meaningful intervention by city leaders or police brass.

“This is precisely why we brought this litigation because the city has not been upholding its duty to ensure that in policing, that people are treated equally and fairly and with dignity,” Malhotra said.