The Editorial Board: Should the feds investigate Buffalo Police Department? It’s a fair request

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

In retrospect, the request for a federal investigation of the Buffalo Police Department seems inevitable. We don’t know that such an examination – if it occurs – will uncover more than Buffalonians already know, but given the culture of policing across the country and the simmering anger within communities of color, the only surprise is that the request didn’t come sooner.

Several area groups are behind the complaint, which they sent to the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York in Buffalo, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The request was made by a potent combination of interests: the WNY Law Center, National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter, Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Buffalo Residents for Council Accountability and Black Lives Matter Buffalo Chapter.

Together, they want the Justice Department to investigate what they say are patterns of unconstitutional and unlawful discrimination by law enforcement, particularly in Black and Latino communities. Their complaint cites 26 publicly released accounts of discrimination and misconduct by Buffalo police that resulted in disciplinary action or judicial findings of fault within the past 10 years. Two other cases remain pending. Most of the officers involved are white.

Buffalonians have seen the best and worst of policing and it’s important to acknowledge the faithfulness and bravery that residents see in the department. But there have also been severe violations of trust and law, including the brutality a jailer inflicted on a handcuffed prisoner, the overtly racist comments of a high-ranking officer (for which she was suspended) and other intolerable events.

In that, Buffalo police may be neither better nor worse than other American police departments, some of which have been usefully investigated by the Justice Department. But police agencies are essential in successful communities. Given their vast authority to deprive individuals of their liberty and even, in some circumstances, to use deadly force, it is essential that standards – and expectations – are high.

City officials tacitly acknowledge that improvements were needed by acknowledging those that have already been implemented. Among them, said city spokesman Mike DeGeorge, are changes to use-of-force procedures that exceed state recommendations, de-escalation training and new investigative layers to the Internal Affairs Division. In addition, he said, the police department has substantially expanded its community engagement efforts.

All are valuable and necessary. The question is whether enough problems remain for the Justice Department to look for itself. Whatever it decides, the request is not unreasonable.