Western New Yorkers' eyebrows were raised when, two weeks ago, protesters in Niagara Falls and police overseeing them met and knelt together. While the mayor welcomed the respectful atmosphere, he admits there are issues of inequality that exist and must be addressed. He explained Thursday how he'd like to do it.
Earlier this week, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced changes to increase transparency. Other significant changes include an end to arrests for low-level, non-violent offenses. In such cases, officers will now issue appearance tickets.
Is the City of Niagara Falls considering the same? For starters, Mayor Robert Restaino wants to bring people together to explore existing community issues, including policing.
"We think that there's inequality across a variety of platforms," he said. "And so I'd like to develop a commission that provides information on things such as housing, health care, education, along with the law enforcement questions. I'm hoping to put the commission together at the end of next week with some other leaders in the community, and then develop these working groups that will provide a recommendation to city government on all those issues."
Restaino was among the city leaders who joined protesters and briefly knelt outside Niagara Falls Police Headquarters on the evening of Sunday, May 31. Later in the evening, police and protesters lined up and exchanged fist bumps. That moment was captured and shared on Twitter.
Niagara Falls, New York. Protestors fist bumping police after a successful peaceful protest❤️✊ pic.twitter.com/h4GQOhM9ce
— nico (@___neezy) June 1, 2020
"I think what was important was that we engaged immediately. It wasn't a situation where we wanted the community to think we were tone deaf," Restaino said. "So, the idea was to get out into the community and to recognize that it was important."
The previous night in Buffalo, an afternoon of protests ended but as the sun went down, agitators arrived to vandalize various storefronts. A van parked in Niagara Square was set on fire and after some windows were smashed at City Hall, one individual could be seen throwing a flaming object through one broken window and into a City Hall office. A Buffalo man has been charged in that incident.
The problems in Buffalo raised concerns for how protests would unfold the next night in Niagara Falls.
"Every city is different. The city of Buffalo is a big place. Mayor Brown has to deal with issues different from what I deal with here. But as a consequence of observing some of those things, we knew we had to be prepared and we knew that we also had to engage the community," Restaino said.
Did that immediate engagement serve to set a proper tone for the commission, and community conversations to be had? The mayor hopes so.
"I would like to think the residents of the City of Niagara Falls are prepared to have an intelligent and decisive conversation about the things that matter," he said. "It'll be productive. And we hope that some of the recommendations that come will be things, obviously, that we want to try and institute."