It’s disturbingly instructive that the Common Council is taking a hands-off approach to the latest example of Buffalo cops abetting brutality.
Rather than stepping up to change a culture that lets some cops think they can get away with committing or covering up assault, Council members prefer a do-nothing stance. They will let police and the FBI do the dirty work, falling back on the excuse that incidents have been “few and far between.”
How few? The suspension of two officers in the Molly’s Pub assault that left an Air National Guardsman comatose follows the cellphone recorded beating of a handcuffed man last month. In 2011, a city cop with a string of brutality allegations resigned amid two probes and a federal lawsuit. And that doesn’t count at least nine former members of the Narcotics Squad arrested since 2001, plus the cop fired in 2012 for running a marijuana-growing operation.
Clearly, there’s a culture that has grown more than just a “few bad apples.” Yet the Council for decades has studiously rejected calls for meaningful oversight.
Contrast that to what one reformer says happened in Albany, where the Council – rather than ignoring citizen complaints – actively engaged residents in changing departmental culture.
“Your public has to take an interest in this,” said Terry O’Neill, who started the Albany-based Constantine Institute to improve law enforcement.
But that public interest starts with public officials. O’Neill said that when Albany’s police chief resigned a few years ago, the City Charter was amended to give the Council confirmation power – something Buffalo’s Council already had.
But the Albany Council went further. A search committee held public hearings, giving people a chance to say what they didn’t like about how the department operated, and what they wanted in a new chief.
It also created a Community Policing Advisory Committee that continues to meet monthly, listening to citizen concerns and bringing in officers to meet with the public. The chief and top brass also make it a point to stop by the well-attended meetings, O’Neill said.
Here, on the other hand, a citizens commission – stung by the arrest of its first chairman, but stymied even more by an inability to get any information out of the administration – is in limbo.
O’Neill – who named his institute for Thomas Constantine, the reform-minded Erie County sheriff’s deputy who went on to head the State Police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration – also serves on Buffalo’s dormant citizen panel.
He said the key to changing police culture is getting the public involved in a meaningful way in setting expectations. That’s what happened in Albany, where he said that “leadership of the Police Department has been committed.”
Here, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and Mayor Byron Brown have responded quickly to the latest incidents, suspending the officers.
But that’s after the fact. Both the administration and the Council need to proactively engage citizens in setting expectations for police behavior.
Creating a culture where such abuses don’t happen in the first place – or at least where other cops don’t stand by and tolerate it – requires a more aggressive form of leadership than simply condemning the indefensible.