The Town of Tonawanda Police Department on Wednesday again sought to counter mounting complaints of harassment and racial profiling by town police – most recently by the owner of a restaurant where a shooting occurred early Sunday.
“It’s absolutely not true,” Police Chief Anthony J. Palombo said of the charges lodged publicly by Jimmy Ying, owner of Ying’s Wings and Things. “Any enforcement action we’ve taken – and I’ve looked at this very carefully – is based on violations of the law.”
The department has been embattled in recent weeks by allegations of racial profiling after two African-American men came forward saying they were unfairly stopped. Robert Harris Sr. was questioned after running in an area under heavy police surveillance to catch a bus after exiting a bank; William Howard was detained at his apartment complex after leaving an area where a bank had just been robbed.
Police maintain proper procedures were followed in both instances.
Ying, meanwhile, claims he and his employees have been unfairly scrutinized by police and subjected to racial slurs since Sept. 14, when a promoter began hosting non-alcohol DJ parties in the restaurant. Though he publicly addressed Ying’s claims Monday night at the Town Board’s regular meeting, Palombo said he hoped his meeting with the media Wednesday “would put the thing to bed so we can continue to do our job.”
“He’s being ridiculous in trying to, I think, push us away so we’ll back off on our enforcement and he can continue to run his business the way he has been,” Palombo said of Ying. “We can’t allow that, as evidenced by the shooting.”
A Cheektowaga man was wounded early Sunday when gunfire broke out in a crowd of more than 100 young people in the parking lot. Ying said he has ended his business dealings with the local promoter, 101 Entertainment, which approached him earlier this year about renting out the unused bar area where underage college students could socialize.
“I’m a business owner in Tonawanda for so many years,” said Ying, a native of China and Clarence resident who has operated two restaurants in the area since the late 1980s. “They don’t respect me at all. Little rights, I can’t even get.”
Ying, on Sunday morning following the shooting, was issued a summons for second-degree criminal nuisance – his fifth since the parties began – and briefly taken into custody. He said he had retained attorney James Demarco to represent him.
But Ying said he also has taken action by filing reports in October with the NAACP and the State Attorney General’s Office.
Palombo said he questioned why Ying, Harris and Howard had not yet formally filed complaints with the police department. Both sides confirmed that detectives visited Ying’s on Tuesday and collected depositions. Ying said he also will submit written statements from his employees documenting their run-ins with police.
“I have no problem with the whole police department,” Ying said. “The majority of the people are nice. It’s just a couple guys.”
“This kind of language has got to go,” he said of the slurs.
While admitting that years ago some town officers were guilty of race-based discrimination, Palombo was adamant that that mindset had changed in his 35 years on the force.
“Myself and the supervisors that got hired around that time were just disgusted by that behavior,” he said. “I truly believe that because of our experience – well, I know – we absolutely won’t tolerate it, which is why we take it so seriously.
“Have officers in this department ever uttered derogatory terms?” he continued. “I’m going to say they probably have. But do we tolerate it? No. And in the performance of their duties, absolutely not.”
Until Wednesday, all inquiries about the harassment and prejudice allegations were directed to the department’s public information officer, Lt. Nicholas A. Bado. But Palombo said he felt compelled to respond Wednesday in an effort to set the record straight.
With regard to the experiences of Harris and Howard, Palombo said they were stopped as part of legitimate police operations and fit the descriptions of suspects. After those incidents, he said an internal review was conducted and feedback was garnered from officers, including the department’s two black officers.
“We said, ‘Guys, tell us straight. Do you think there’s a problem? Are we missing something?’ ” Palombo said. “My folks are genuinely flabbergasted that people think that about them.”
Still, he vowed that all public complaints brought to the department’s attention would be internally investigated.
“I don’t think people should ever, ever, ever be afraid of the police,” he said. “And I don’t think people should ever be afraid to report to us if there’s an issue.”