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Alliance sues BPD to force release of checkpoint data

WBFO's Mike Desmond
A Buffalo Police car turns on its lights behind a car stopped at the base of the Skyway.

The fight over Buffalo Police street checkpoints is continuing in the courts, with an alliance of interest groups seeking a court order for release of what data exists since 2013.

Buffalo Police operate checkpoints that lead to arrests or the issuing of traffic tickets. Everyone agrees on that.

Where they occur and how many arrests or tickets result has not been very public, although some specific data was released last week for six weeks of checkpoints, spread across the city. However, it is widely believed by activists that most of these checkpoints were taking place on the East Side.

“The officer’s first question is, typically, “What are you doing out here? Wrong place, wrong neighborhood, wrong time. [Race-based stops] happens to so many people.” - Former BPD Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, who is African American, describing his experiences for being pulled over in Buffalo for “driving while black," quoted from UB Law School report.

The alliance of interest groups filed a freedom of information request for older data and have not received that. Western New York Law Center Executive Director Joe Kellerman said the goal is to determine if the checkpoints follow the law.

"General crime suppression stops, the kind that they used to do in the Soviet Bloc countries, are illegal in this country," said Kellerman. "They can have DWI checkpoints, but they can't stop people and basically try to figure out whether or not they committed a crime if they have no suspicion at all that they have specifically done so."
Kellerman said the checkpoints hit some members of the public hard.

"I interviewed one woman who basically lives off of Bailey Avenue, right where the Kensington drops you off for Bailey," he said. "She said that she's sometimes stopped twice a day at the same checkpoint where she goes home, she goes out to pick up her kid. That's just improper. That's not proper."

The data filed with Buffalo's Common Council by the Police Department said most checkpoints issued mostly traffic tickets, with relatively few criminal arrests.

"We've heard of a lot of arrests being made," said Kellerman. "I think the public defenders have defended a lot of those cases, gotten a lot of charges dismissed. We've also heard that there are vehicles there, flat bed trucks and so forth, at some of these checkpoints that are ready basically to haul some people's cars away."

The Law Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice said they expect to be in court soon, on their Article 78 filing, seeking to have a judge order release of the data, going back to the beginning of 2013. A key issue is whether these are checkpoints for things like possible DWI, which the courts allow, or checkpoints looking for people who might commit crimes, which is not allowed.

The court case uses two years ofdatacollected by University at Buffalo and Cornell Law students working with UB Law Professor Anjana Malhotra. Police Department Spokesman Michael DeGeorge said it is policy not to respond to court filings like this.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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