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Investigative Post: Police oversight falling short in Buffalo

File photo
A rally was held in front of Buffalo's B District Police Station last week to voice concerns over the death of Wardel Davis, 20, who died while in police custody.

Monitoring police conduct has become a pressing issue in recent years across the nation. Many cities have responded by increasing civilian oversight. But as Daniela Porat with our partner Investigative Post has found, there is little effort to hold police accountable in Buffalo.

Last week, demonstrators gathered outside a police precinct in downtown Buffalo to rally for police accountability. They came out for Wardel Davis, who died last week while being apprehended by two Buffalo Police officers.  

What is a citizen to do when they feel victimized by police? 

In many cities, including Rochester and Pittsburgh, their police investigations into public complaints are reviewed by a citizen panel. But in Buffalo, police are permitted to police themselves and they rarely find fault with the conduct of officers accused of using excessive force. 

"I don’t feel as if they’re held accountable because it’s the fox watching the chicken coop when it comes to internal affairs," said Gary Connnors, father of Matthew Connors, who was shot and killed by officer James Reese in August 2009. Police said Reese acted in self-defense.

The Internal Affairs Division of the Buffalo Police Department completed 62 investigations into allegation of excessive use of force during a two-and-a-half-year period ending last fall. Officers were found at fault in only four cases. That means officers are cleared of wrongdoing 94 percent of the time. Another 26 cases remain open, dating back as far as 2014. 

"Unfortunately, I think that fairness demands that there be some transparency with what internal affairs does. There is none. It’s absolutely secret," said Steven Cohen, the attorney representing Connors.

In a deposition related to the Connors case, former police commissioner McCarthy Gipson acknowledged the problem with police investigating police. When asked whether police officers will lie to protect other officers about on-duty misconduct, he said yes.  
Gary Connors said the police stonewalled him. They would not even give him a copy of the police report.

"They kept putting us off, and saying in a couple months," Connors said.

In other cities like Rochester and Pittsburgh, these internal affairs investigations are reviewed by an independent civilian body. In Buffalo, there are two bodies charged with holding police accountable, but neither one is effective. 

The Common Council established the Police Oversight Committee nearly three years ago but has not addressed police misconduct or any number of other issues. Then there’s the Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations.  It has the legal authority to review internal police records involving citizen complaints, but police rarely provide adequate documentation and the commission does not use its subpoena power to obtain them.  

"It’s less oversight and more community relations," said the commission’s executive director, Richard Morrisroe.

The commission hasn’t released an annual report since 2009 and the mayor has allowed four of its 11 seats to go vacant. Local activists, including Danielle Johnson of the Justice and Opportunity Table, want more say in police oversight. They’re pushing for more community representation on the commission.

"It’s only right for the community to have a say and to have input as to how things proceed when they feel as though they have been wronged," said Johnson.

This flawed system of checks and balances extends to the courts, where an officer’s history of misconduct can remain concealed. New York Civil Rights Law 50(a), prohibits the release of records used to evaluate an officer's performance. But departments frequently use it as a blanket exemption on all personnel records. In court, it’s up to a judge to decide whether and what is released in cases where an officer is being sued for police misconduct. 

"It is very frustrating...when I’m trying to get a jury to do justice and when you have the same officer who acted like a brutal animal in the field and beat the crap out of my client for no good reason and I want to let the jury know that the person is a monster, it gets frustrating for me not to be able to show what this officer has done and to not be able to bring out their prior conduct in a court of law," said Steven Cohen.

The recent death of Wardel Davis has put the issue of police accountability front and center. Our findings suggest Buffalo has a lot of room for improvement.

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