They don't meet often. So when the Buffalo Common Council's Police Oversight Committee held its latest meeting Tuesday in City Hall, they got an earful about several concerns. They include two deaths involving Buffalo Police officers, the city's Strike Force and whether checkpoints are being carried out fairly throughout the city.
It was the Police Oversight Committee's first meeting since January 24. Since then, two men died while in confrontations with police officers. Wardel Davis died while being placed under arrest in February. Jose Hernandez Rossy was fatally shot during a confrontation with officers in May.
"We cannot speak on those cases right now. They are being investigated by the State Attorney General's Office," said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda in the early stages of the meeting. "I've been asked not to talk about them and refer all questions to them. I imagine we'll be getting results from their investigations in the near future."
As the meeting closed out, a group of protestors stood up and chanted a demand that officers involved in both cases be arrested and prosecuted.
Concerns were also raised over two police operations, one involving checkpoints quickly set up in the city. Some allege that these checkpoints are more likely places in neighborhoods where there are majority African-American populations.
Councilmember David Rivera, a former police officer who chairs the Police Oversight Committee, was asked if data about these checkpoints may be released.
"If we're able to. I don't have a problem making any information public that is available," Rivera said. "Whatever they have right now. I can't tell you exactly how much data I'm going to ask for or how far back. But I will make every effort to share whatever data we have with the public."
Police officials were not commenting about a recent report by Investigative Post which suggests the city's Strike Force, formed by the mayor to crack down on gangs and drugs, have conducted some searches without proper cause. The report also states that some cases have been tossed out by questionable testimony.
Rivera was asked about that report by the journalist who prepared it. But he responded that the right people would have been prepared to answer, if given proper notice.
"If what they're doing is illegal, it's illegal. If the evidence is being suppressed, then it's wrong. It's up to the Buffalo Police Department to make those changes. Certainly, this is something you've just brought to our attention," he said. "It wasn't brought up before us, and certainly if it was clocked in and was something the commissioner could have answered, he would have responded."
During the meeting, the group Partnership for the Public Good briefly presented its proposal for police reforms. They include regular performance reviews, required hours participating in community policing, more recruitment from diverse communities and additional de-escalation training.
Another one of them, as executive director Sam Magavern explained, calls for replacing its Strike Force with a community-policing model, especially in public housing.
"We presented an example from one of the most challenging housing project in the country, Watts, California, where instead of using that kind of model they used a community policing model," Magavern said. "It's where police officers lived in public housing, they build strong relationships with public housing residents and crime went down dramatically."
Magavern and PPG also recommended what they call "build your way out of crime," by expanding the mayor's summer youth programs and work opportunities to keep young people busy, engaged and out of trouble.
Also during the hearing, Erie County Legislator and recent mayoral candidate Betty Jean Grant openly called for the replacement of Commissioner Derenda, complaining he has failed to participate in community meetings while others from the department have been regular attendees. Rivera told reporters after the meeting that it's not the first time Grant has called for a change at the top of the department but added that it's Mayor Brown who picks the commissioner and it's up to the mayor to decide if a change is in order.
He also spoke of plans to form an advisory committee that will serve the Police Oversight Committee.
"They're going to work under the Common Council and work with the Buffalo Police Department on many of the issues that you heard here today," said Rivera.
The councilmember says a resolution is being drafted but lawmakers need to determine how to make it inclusive for all segments of the community, as well as the professionals.