Outside a tiny soul food restaurant on Buffalo’s West Side Lou DeJesus, an African American, is describing being stopped by city police. It happened last summer as she was walking from her home to a store.
“I didn’t even make it into the store," said DeJesus. "I live about five houses away from the store, cross the street, click, click, up to the door, they had stopped someone else and then turned to me and said they wanted to see my ID.”
It only took a few minutes and they eventually let her go. She felt as though she was stopped because of the color of her skin. She remembers her feelings in that moment.
"Absolute terror, absolute terror," she said. "Rock hard place. I felt like there was nothing I could say or do that was going to get me out of that situation. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy."
Experts say situations like this, race-based stops, are common across the nation and in Buffalo. University at Buffalo professor Anjana Malhotra examined the issue. She and her students published a report last year that claims the department is “overly aggressive and out of touch with the community.”
“We found a disappointing and disturbing systematic disregard for constitutional rights rules in the black and brown communities that quite frankly the white community has not tolerate and will not tolerate,” said Malhotra.
Police officials don’t agree.
“We get lumped in with problems that exist at police departments across the country," said Captain Steven Nichols, he says social media and the news media play a huge role in public perceptions.
"It seems nowadays everyone seems to have an opinion of police even though no one has ever encountered a police."
Nichols says the department has more than a dozen active community programs and participates in several community events like the Juneteenth Festival. The event takes place every year and every year the police and the community join forces to make sure it stays safe and family friendly.
As Captain Nichols makes his rounds on part the parade route on Genesee Street, an African American volunteer greeted him with a bear hug.
Another Juneteenth volunteer, pastor Antwan K. Diggs. Sr., says police are doing a good job at building relationships.
“My main thing is young people need to see law enforcement personnel when the lights are not flashing when we’re not in a crisis,” he said.
But, some in Buffalo and across the nation, worry about police encounters that can quickly spiral out of control – or turn deadly. Studies show last year, 149 unarmed people died in encounters with police. More than half were black or Latino.
Locally, there’s Wardel Davis, a 20-year-old black man who died from an asthma attack after struggling with police, and Jose Hernandez-Rossy, who was shot and killed after struggling with an officer in a traffic stop.
Prosecutors said, the police acted properly in both cases. Malhotra says they are incidents that incite fear in the minority community.
“It raises all kinds of questions. It scared African American and Latino parents all throughout Buffalo," she said.
Police officials say officers don’t arbitrarily stop minorities without cause. Nichols says officers are fully trained on all aspects of the law.
“Should an officer overstep, we have a full internal affairs division, we have an administration and command staff that doesn’t tolerate it," he said. "It’s open record, we’ve had problems in the past and we’ve dealt with every single one of them, but our problems with aggressive police officers are very few and far between.”
Like the incident involving Justin Levy. He sued, claiming that he was thrown against a police car and arrested because he was black. After a jury sided with him, the city settled the case. In 2016, Levy was awarded about $300,000.
Civil rights attorney Frank Housh represents a lot of people of color. He says they often get mistreated by police.
“It’s a stigmatization that happens, because of all the way back going to the notion of white supremacy, that’s what we’re talking about," he said. "It's treatment as second class citizens that is if not sponsored certainly acted on by the state."
So, what’s the fix?
"Is there a fix? How do you fix slavery?" he said. "This is the great moral stain on our nation."
Racial Equity in the Justice System