Does the Town of Tonawanda Police Department have a problem with African-Americans? Some residents think so, and there’s enough of an issue that town and police leaders need to take the question seriously.
The issue burst into public view earlier this month, when a town resident, Robert A. Harris Sr., reported that police stopped the bus he was on in order to question him about a report of a suspicious black male wandering around the area of a Walgreens store. Harris had been seen running in the vicinity which, in the eyes of police officers, made him suspicious. No crime had been reported and, as Harris told the officers who stopped his bus, he was running so he wouldn’t miss it.
What was the purpose of the stop? Would police have stopped a public bus because a white man was reported running when no crime had been committed? Would they have demanded the identification of a white man going about his business, and run a computer check for outstanding warrants – all when they had no real reason to question him in the first place? It smacks of New York City’s intolerable stop-and-frisk policy that Mayor-elect William de Blasio has pledged to end.
After The Buffalo News published a story about that event, another African-American man came forward. William Howard said Tonawanda Police came to his door after a bank robbery. Howard said he had seen a slightly built black man on the ground, handcuffed, with four white officers standing over him near Niagara Falls Boulevard.
He believes they saw him walking in the vicinity before they came to his apartment building, demanding identification and treating him like a suspect.
“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.” He believes the department is consciously profiling black men.
Lt. Nicholas A. Bado, a Police Department spokesman, said police had information from another agency that a potential suspect was living in that building. Yet even when Howard showed officers his driver’s license, an officer asked Howard’s white neighbor to confirm his identity.
What is more, Howard said, police later showed him a photo of someone, presumably a suspect, who looked nothing like him. Bado backed up his officers by noting – unpersuasively – that different people will have different perceptions of whether people look similar.
Most recently, Jimmy Ying, owner of Ying’s Wings and Things on Eggert Road, complained about police conduct. Six African-American employees vouched for his character and said they, themselves, had been unfairly targeted for traffic stops and given tickets for minor infractions. Police and the Town Board denied any prejudice and Police Chief Anthony J. Palombo accused Ying of running an “unruly premises.”
None of this adds up to proof that Tonawanda Police are profiling, but there’s more evidence against them than they had on Harris or Howard. There is at least some probable cause here and Palombo and the Town Board are doing themselves and their municipality a grave disservice if they don’t take it seriously.
Police need the respect and cooperation of the people they are paid to protect if they are to do their jobs well. Even the perception of prejudice can hinder them in performing their duties. That perception is already there. The question is whether there is truth behind it. The town needs to find out.