Activists say Buffalo police reform report lacks substance

Mar 26, 2021

The public comments phase of the months-long City of Buffalo’s state-mandated Commission on Police Reform ended today.  

This morning, community activists gathered online to suggest the commission’s recommendations aren’t good enough. They have more than a dozen demands, including more focus and care in de-escalating situations with individuals who may be dealing with a mental illness. Mike Powell, who sits on the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, said he sees many of the commission's reforms as vague, and reinforcements of current departmental policy. 

“Officers are being reminded to comply with policies which are in need of reforms themselves, like how de-escalation techniques are incorporated, something the [Police Advisory Board] outlined in length in our use of force policy brief,” said Powell. “In addition, there is complete omission of mental health diversion recommendations, specifically incorporating 911 diversion models over co-responder models. The report only mentioned utilization of the behavioral health team as a policy reminder to officers.”

Other community activists called on the reform commission to set up a true civilian oversight board of the police department. Whitney Walker, executive director of VOICE Buffalo, said the current Police Advisory Board lacks the power to investigate possible wrongdoing done by city police officers. 

“We need external, objective, and accountable oversight of our police so that when an officer has been investigated 22 times by internal affairs for alleged misconduct, they're suspended without pay and terminated,” Walker said. “We, VOICE Buffalo, demand that the Buffalo Police Advisory Board’s model be codified into law, giving them the power that they deserve to objectively review misconduct and hold officers accountable.”

Those in the legal community also raised objections to the manner in which the commission was conducted. Every law enforcement agency in the State of New York was required to form a taskforce to look into its policing tactics following an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June. Samantha White of the Minority Bar Association of WNY said while other communities submitted reports that outlined a laundry list of data, interviews, observations, and policy reforms, Buffalo’s committee submitted a report that was just four pages long. 

“The collaborative’s report is notable for a lack of substance in general, while other reform and reinvention task forces around the state such as Syracuse and Erie County generated reports that were hundreds of pages long, Buffalo produced four pages,” White said. “This suggests they completely lacked the attention to detail that is vital for the substantive and effective reform that Buffalo needs and demands.”

The 12-member commission appointed by Mayor Byron Brown called for actions like a diversion program for low-level offenses, community involvement in police collective bargaining negotiations, and "regular communication" to officers on de-escalation techniques. The report is due to Albany by April 1.