The Buffalo Police Department’s Strike Force and Housing units are the vanguard of Mayor Byron Brown’s campaign against the scourge of guns, drugs and gangs in Buffalo. But the tactics used by officers in the two units have come under fire by members of both the public and the legal community.
These squads are not like regular street cops, who typically respond to calls for service within their districts. Strike Force is deployed in high crime areas and conduct traffic checkpoints. The Housing Unit patrols the city’s public housing projects.
One mother, whose son was arrested by Strike Force officers on weapons charges, agrees with this mission in principle. We’re not disclosing her identity because she fears police retaliation.
“I agree with them trying to get the guns off the street,” she said. “They want it off the street. I want it off the street. I don’t want it in my son’s pocket. They don’t want it in his pocket.”
But it’s the way these officers do their job that’s the problem. One defense attorney described their tactics as “stalk and frisk.” Another called them “vigilantes.”
“They’re supposed to uphold the law at all times,” the mother said. “And it seems really like they’re a gang against the community.”
She is not alone in that assessment. Investigative Post reviewed a sampling of 10 criminal cases in which officers in these units conducted what judges later deemed were illegal searches. Interviews with seven defense attorneys and a review of court documents suggest these cases are just the beginning.
“I think they have a complete disregard for the constitution of the United States and most importantly the Fourth Amendment,” said attorney Michael Stachowski. “They just seem to roust kids in the street, chase people, and hope they find contraband.”
One woman testified a that Strike Force officer threatened to call Child Protective Services if she didn’t consent to a search of her house. A judge later ruled the search was illegal and the district attorney’s office is now appealing. An officer during his testimony referred to the woman as a “baby mama.”
In another incident, officers punched someone in the head who was already in handcuffs and subdued by pepper spray.
Recently, a coalition of Black Lives Matter Activists and attorneys sent a letter urging New York State Attorney General to investigate the Buffalo Police. They cited a two-year study conducted by UB and Cornell Law Schools that found that Buffalo police, especially Strike Force and Housing officers, engage in unconstitutional and discriminatory practices.
Anjana Malhotra, an attorney and co-author of the study, said the city took a page from Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in New York City.
“It took actual techniques that have been ruled unconstitutional and is applying them with impunity top-down,” Malhotra said.
Illegal searches aren’t the only problem. In two of the cases reviewed by Investigative Post, judges rejected evidence seized by officers in part because they determined the testimony of officers was either hard to believe or contradicted by video evidence.
One Erie County judge wrote about how implausible an officer’s account of an arrest was, describing an officer’s testimony as “inventive.” In another case, a federal magistrate judge acknowledged how security camera footage of an arrest contradicted officer testimony, writing, “The video seems to tell a different story.”
Investigative Post sought to interview the dozen officers involved the cases we reviewed but Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda denied the request. Instead, we spoke with police spokesperson Lieutenant Jeffrey Rinaldo.
“We would never sacrifice constitutionality for a greater mission of getting guns, or violent offenders off the street,” Rinaldo said. “It does no good to make arrests that are not going to hold up in court.”
Phillip Dabney, a local criminal defense attorney, said the conduct of certain Strike Force and Housing officers is counter-productive.
“I think that the danger is not that you’re actually defeating crime. I think that the danger becomes that you are bullying a community,” Dabney said.