The Editorial Board: Reports of racist language by Buffalo police are disgusting and disturbing

The Buffalo News editorial board condemned the widespread use racial epithets within the BPD and leadership’s failure to investigate or train officers on this bias. Read the article here.

Reports that racist language has been routinely used – including the most hateful epithet of all – by Buffalo police in dealing with the public have recently emerged.

Is it surprising? Despite statements from both Mayor Byron Brown and Police Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia that “discriminatory language by any employee is not tolerated in this administration” (Brown), and “it is not acceptable today and it was not acceptable in the past” (Gramaglia), it is all too easy to believe that, regardless of official policies and up-to-date training to guard against bias and biased language, the language can persist. Even now.

A federal lawsuit against the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Police Department claiming discriminatory policing toward people of color on the East Side has been slowly proceeding in federal court. Brought by East Side activist group Black Love Resists in the Rust in 2018, it reached the deposition stage only this past spring.

The depositions, as revealed by News reporting and in an ongoing story by nonprofit news organization Investigative Post, are beyond damning. Some of the statements by deposed police officers – all former members, who have since retired, of the Buffalo Police Department’s now disbanded Strike Force and Housing units – admit widespread use of hateful racial slurs when these units were in operation (Strike Force was disbanded in 2018). One officer explains the use by saying, “I’m a human being.”

The testimony also indicates that when citizens complained about racist language or behavior by police, those complaints often failed to make their way up the chain of command, were rarely investigated by internal affairs and disciplinary action hardly ever resulted.

Again, are we surprised? But lack of surprise should not be accompanied by acceptance. We should no longer be hearing about police at any level being accused of racist language or behavior. If the current system does include training, reporting and internal follow-up – and those protocols are being strictly followed and enforced – citizens should not need to sue the city and its police department for infractions.

Claudia Wilner, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, which is representing plaintiff Black Love Resists, went through years of records and could not find an instance where former Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda initiated an investigation into a claim of racial discrimination.

If protocols were strictly followed and enforced – Derenda is said to be a stickler and a strict disciplinarian – why weren’t records of investigation and resulting disciplinary action found?

Such lack of documentation makes it very difficult for citizens to have their complaints addressed.

If police officers truly believe their racist language comes from being “human,” it may not be possible to change that mindset. But it is possible to create conditions in which racist behavior on the job is not tolerated, is documented when it happens and comes with consequences.

According to Gramaglia, “implicit bias” training for active police officers exists and is mandated. In fact, Gramaglia notes that the training was just updated according to recent state standards and that 40% of the force had taken it, since it was offered in June.

That’s good to hear, especially since none of the retired officers who were deposed in the current lawsuit had taken any such training. One did not know what “implicit bias” meant.

Clearly, the safeguards that are supposedly in place aren’t enough. Obviously, disciplinary action for racist language and behavior is possible, but it’s rarely, if ever, used. It’s equally apparent that training can only go so far, particularly since a few training sessions, no matter how well-constructed, cannot obliterate prejudices acquired over a lifetime.

Zero tolerance needs to really mean zero tolerance. Brown and Gramaglia say that it does, but the evidence presented in this lawsuit says otherwise. So does the anecdotal evidence found on the streets of Buffalo.

That’s why we’re not surprised. But we want to be. And if the abhorrence toward racism expressed by Buffalo’s top law enforcement officials is inoculated into every single officer on every beat, maybe someday we will be pleasantly surprised. Maybe someday nobody will need to know what “implicit bias” means – because it will no longer exist.

It’s an aspiration. But that’s not where we are now.