When William Howard read last Monday about Tonawanda police stopping Robert Harris Sr. after he had run to catch a bus, Howard began reliving his own experience of a week or so earlier.
He had seen a slightly built black man on the ground, cuffed, with four white officers standing over him just off Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Howard then spotted what he believes were other officers watching him as he walked home. A short time later, Howard recalled, Tonawanda police were at his apartment building, demanding his identification, and, he said, treating him like a suspect in the bank robbery that had just occurred down the street.
“I was really upset,” Howard said. “I have never been arrested in my life. I am not a thug. I’m a veteran. I served my country. You can’t just paint everyone with the same brush. What they did was wrong.”
Howard, 57, says he’s been stopped by police four times – three times in his car and most recently at his apartment complex – since moving to the town in 2007. After reading about what happened to Harris, and given what recently happened to him, Howard believes Tonawanda police are using racial profiling.
“If it was a white bank robber, they wouldn’t stop random white men because they happen to live in the neighborhood,” Howard said. “I believe they are racially profiling every black man they see. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. It is guilty until proven innocent.”
Tonawanda police deny the accusation.
“You go where the evidence leads you,” said Lt. Nicholas A. Bado, a Police Department spokesman. “Never will race alone identify someone as a suspect.”
Bado said that the way Howard, and also Harris, saw things, may reflect their own opinions and perceptions. But he added that police were acting on other relevant information that the two men were not aware of and what was occurring at the time.
In Howard’s case, he said, a bank robbery had just occurred and police had information indicating the robber – a black male – might reside in the apartment complex where Howard lives.
“We had information from another agency that a potential suspect was living in that building,” Bado said, adding: “Look at the situation. We just had a fresh bank robbery. We are potentially dealing with a guy who just robbed a bank. We don’t want to be complacent.”
In Harris’ case, Bado noted that Harris unknowingly ended up in an area under heavy police surveillance Nov. 9 because of threatened criminal activity. Harris and his friend had gotten off a bus together, then separated when Harris went into a Delaware Avenue M&T Bank. When he came out, he ran for the bus.
Police followed the bus, then stopped it, demanded to see Harris’ ID, and ran a warrant check on him.
As it turned out, Harris, 51, went to the bank to cash a check and was running because he didn’t want to miss the bus to return home. No crime was reported at the bank.
In both instances, Bado said, police followed proper procedures given the circumstances.
Howard grew up in Buffalo, worked as a radio announcer at several local stations after graduating from college, then worked in other parts of the country before returning to Western New York in 2007. He decided to live in the Town of Tonawanda, he said, because he was robbed at gunpoint while living in Buffalo years ago and was left feeling that the city is an unsafe place to live.
Since 2007, Howard said, he’s been pulled over three times by town police, but only ticketed once, for allegedly going through a stop sign. The other times, he said, he was stopped by an officer who said he switched lanes without signaling and because of the tint on his windows. Each time, he said, the allegations were bogus, and the officers in two instances let him go without a ticket.
But Bado said town police issue 14,000 tickets a year. It’s not unusual for police to let motorists go with a warning sometimes, he added.
“It’s the officer’s discretion,” he said.
About two weeks ago, on Oct. 24, Tonawanda police questioned him at his home, Howard said.
Questioned at home
He had walked to a gas station near his Niagara Falls Boulevard apartment to buy a lottery ticket. When he left the station to return home, he noticed that police cars had converged near the Key Bank branch about two buildings away.
The bank had just been robbed.
“I saw a lot of commotion,” Howard recalled. “There were a lot of cops in the parking lot, and there was a black guy on the ground, handcuffed, with four cops standing over him.”
The man eventually was uncuffed and walked away, Howard said.
As Howard walked home, he noticed some people – he now believes they were police officers – watching him from cars as they passed him on the street, he said.
Once back in his apartment, Howard said, he was taking detergent down to the apartment complex’s laundry room when he noticed police in the parking lot of his building, some near his car.
He went outside, he said, to ask why the officers were looking at his car, but before he had a chance, an officer approached him.
“Take your hand out of your pocket,” the officer ordered as she put her hand on the gun in her holster, he said.
“What’s your name? Where do you live?” other officers asked.
“They asked me four times, four different cops, what my name is,” Howard said. “Then they said: ‘Do you have any ID?’ ”
All the officers that day were white, according to Howard, and eight officers were in the apartment lobby with him when he was asked for his license.
A short time later, Howard said, the officer returned his license to him. Howard said he later learned that the officer went to one of his neighbors – a white man – to verify Howard’s identify.
“Even though my license says I am standing where I live, they took my license to one of my neighbors – a white guy – and asked him to verify who I was,” Howard said.
After Howard’s license was returned, Howard said, one of the investigators showed him a photo of an African-American man, presumably of the bank robber, and asked if he knew the man.
The man in the photo looked nothing like him, he said, nor did the black male who had been cuffed near the bank earlier in the day.
Different individuals will have different perceptions of whether people look similar, Bado responded.
Suspect on tape
Sometime after police checked his ID, Howard said, as many as 10 officers, accompanied by police dogs, went floor-to-floor throughout the apartment building. No one was arrested.
The next day, Howard said, his building manager reviewed the apartment complex surveillance camera tapes, which he said police did not return to view until about a week later. The tapes indicated the robber may have been dropped off near the apartment complex shortly after the robbery occurred, then immediately drove away in a second car parked in the complex lot, Howard said.
Bado said he knows racial discrimination occurs but said he’s never seen it in the Tonawanda Police Department.
“I’m not naive enough to believe there isn’t discrimination,” Bado said. “But in all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen it in this department.”
Bado encouraged anyone concerned over their treatment by Tonawanda police to file a complaint with the department and discuss their concerns with police brass.
“We have a formal complaint process,” he said. “Get something documented in writing for us to investigate so if there is some sort of improper behavior going on we can follow up on it, or if there isn’t, so we can provide a better explanation for the person complaining.”