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Investigative Post: Buffalo Police quietly stepping up de-escalation training

Daniela Porat
Demonstrators outside a Buffalo Police district station protested the February death of Wardel "Meech" Davis

Last fall, Investigative Post exposed the subpar training Buffalo police receive in the use of force and firearms, the exact kind of training needed to prevent a Ferguson-type tragedy. Those concerns have grown in the wake of the deaths of two men of color, Wardel Davis in February and Jose Hernandez-Rossy last week, after encounters with police.

The department’s use of force training involves a multiple choice test whose 10 questions can include, “The use of pepper spray should be considered before the use of physical force, true or false.” 

“It’s stunning,” says Steve Peraza, a Buffalo State professor who co-authored a report on community attitudes towards the police. "The idea that the Buffalo police department is not training its officers in use of force more than two hours a year is stunning, especially given the context."

Law enforcement experts agree that today officers need to be put in real-life, high-stress scenarios in training so that they know how to respond.

"Just proficiency with the weapon is not enough. What we need is officers who make correct judgments," said Paul O’Connell, a policing consultant.

The Buffalo Police firearms training was also not as hands-on as experts say it should be. Officers only had to fire a certain number of rounds at a target in a range, which doesn’t prepare officers for what they will face in real life.

"You want to develop that habit of mind that lets them identify these situations and not just answer the question, 'Am I authorized to shoot?,' but 'Should I shoot?,'" said O'Connell.

Mayor Byron Brown and police officials said, at the time of my report last fall, that they were satisfied with officer training as it was. But the department has since quietly developed plans to upgrade training in firearms and the use of force.

I went to Amherst to experience scenario-based training for myself. I had to make decisions about when to de-escalate situations and when to use force. Training captain James McNamara set up two different calls for me to respond to And after each one we debriefed, what went right and what went wrong.

"I don’t want my officers to never have experienced anything like that before. By running them through training, routinely, as routinely as we possibly can, several times a year, when they experience this for real, they’ll have gone through this thought process, they’ll at least have done it in training," said McNamara.

Buffalo Police will reinstate training last offered years ago on de-escalating volatile situations using minimal force. They will also learn how to deal with people having mental health crises and handle the psychological toll of police work.

Once the department moves to its new headquarters, it will use a firearms simulator which makes officers respond to adrenaline-inducing situations and decide whether or not to shoot at a suspect. The changes will be implemented later this year or early next year. 

"I do agree that more reality-based is where training is headed, but it’s not something that I can tell you that we’re implementing tomorrow. Any type of additional training we can afford makes sense. The issue comes down to time, availability, and money," said Lt. Jeffrey Rinaldo.

Some of the city’s elected officials have downplayed the need for improved training on the grounds Buffalo hasn’t had anyone die during an encounter with police in recent years. Given two deaths in three months, the issue of officer training may take on greater urgency.

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