Investigative Post: Police rifle purchase exposes rift with public

May 17, 2017

The relationship between Buffalo’s minority communities and the police is strained and a recent decision to buy rifles for officers has amplified that divide.

In March, the Common Council approved the purchase of 115 semi-automatic rifles and protective vests. A $280,000 state grant is paying for the equipment, which will be used in response to mass shootings or terrorist attacks.

"God forbid, an event occurs, I would think the community wants the best equipment possible in the hands of the officers that are responding to it," said Lt. Jeffrey Rinaldo about why police need the resources.

After the mass shooting at Columbine, law enforcement agencies across the country agreed patrol officers, not SWAT teams, get to the scene faster and are better positioned to stop a shooting rampage. To do that well, experts say they need rifles, firearms with more accuracy and firepower.

"The SWAT team is on-call, so it’s not something that they can respond quickly to an event. When you’re dealing with an active shooter or situations like that, or a terrorist event, time is of the essence," Rinaldo said.

Officers won’t have access to the rifles during routine patrols. Instead, they will be distributed by supervising lieutenants in response to events like Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.

But there are concerns in the black community that the added firepower will somehow be used against them under different circumstances. Regardless, activists contend other police/community issues should be addressed first.

"The justification that BPD needs more weapons, without any conversation about accreditation or evaluation, and just excusing it by saying, ‘Well we need to catch the bad guys,’ is, we think, hugely irresponsible to the public and it’s not a real dialogue," said James Lopez, a criminal justice community organizer.

Lopez and other activists cite a litany of unresolved issues, including what they say is subpar training of officers and a lack of accountability involving police misconduct.

"This is the same time where people are seeing videos of people who are mentally ill being struck by SUVs," he added.

In March, Lopez and other activists asked the Common Council to hold a public hearing before a vote was taken on the rifles. But one day after making that request, the Council voted unanimously to accept the grant, without a public hearing.

"These are people who are concerned about what happened to Wardel Davis, concerned that BPD is not accredited and doesn’t have a consistent way of evaluating officers," Lopez said.

Davis died while in police custody as he was being placed under arrest in February. The Erie County medical examiner determined the 20-year-old's death was a homicide brought on by a respiratory ailment.

Some Council members see it differently. They want the police to receive more training and follow industry-wide professional practice, but they feel the department has made progress.

"I think it's the right thing to do. We have addressed the concerns of the public that came to us with concerns," said Common Council President Darius Pridgen, right before the grant money was approved.

"Do you feel like, overall, these concerns are being heard by council members?," I asked Lopez.

"Absolutely not."