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Cops and residents agree more community involvement needed to build trust with law enforcement

Avery Schneider

With a spotlight on tensions between law enforcement and the public, members of the Buffalo community came together on Tuesday night to figure out how they can do their part to improve relations between the city’s police and its residents.

Two thousand surveys on perceptions of policing and public safety in the Buffalo community led to a town hall meeting in the Masten District. Residents, members of anti-violence groups, elected officials and police officers met at Burgard High School for a candid conversation about the struggles that the community faces with police, and vice versa.

Franchelle Hart, Executive Director of Open Buffalo said the surveys, conducted this past spring, were meant to be the start of an open dialogue.

“One of the stark differences that we found in the surveys was the level of trust – especially in communities of color,” said Hart. “60 percent of respondents said that they didn’t feel as though they could trust law enforcement.”

In the school cafeteria, attendees sat together at red lunch tables and shared their experiences in response to a short five-part survey. In the discussion at his table, Masten District resident Anthony Garr summed up what most other discussions around the room hit on.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Working together, residents and police were asked to fill in this survey on how they can improve their relationships.

“The only time that, most of the time, that you encounter police officers is when something goes wrong,” said Garr. “Instead of that, I think there needs to be more community engagement, maybe more foot patrols in the areas.”

Garr said that only seeing police when there’s a problem builds a negative association, and he thinks cops sitting in patrol cars is one of the most detrimental things to good relations with the public. He said it’s been his experience that officers don’t know the people they protect.

“When something happens in the neighborhood, [police] want people to reach out to you and help solve the problem with whatever happened,” said Garr. “But if they don’t trust you because they don’t know you – that seems like that’s going to be a bigger problem.”

So what does it take to change that problem? Chief George Gast of the NFTA Transit Police said, “Good community policing is putting the police in contact with the public in positive situations.”

However, Gast and other police officials pointed out that one of the biggest challenges for good community policing lies in limited manpower and a high volume of “calls for service,” which is the first priority for most officers on patrol.

Around the room, groups also came to the conclusion that they’d like to see more opportunities for police to interface with the community outside of the job – in public meetings and at community events. As one speaker put it, “It’s powerful to see officers as people.” City of Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly Beaty told residents they have a responsibility to reach out and get to know police. She said there’s nothing wrong with waving down a passing patrol car just to introduce yourself.

Groups also raised was a concern over lack of resolution on complaints about police. Masten District Councilmember Ulysses O. Wingo, Sr. wants to see residents get involved in the process. He urged them to take part by supporting a resolution he plans to present to the city council, re-invigorating the city’s Commission on Citizens Rights and Community Relations. He pointed out that it’s already a part of the city’s charter.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
WBFO News File Photo
Masten District Councilmember Ulysses O. Wingo, Sr. (left) hosted the town hall meeting with Franchelle Hart, executive director of Open Buffalo (right).

“What I really want to do is try to guide the conversation to get people to see, ‘I can actually have a voice in what happens with these allegations and these grievances that come up with the police,’” said Wingo. “If you filed a complaint, we have a commission – a real commission with real people – to actually review those cases.”

Wingo said the commission is designed to have one civilian representative from each of the city’s nine districts, as well as two appointed by the mayor. He says he’s wasting no time moving forward on the idea, and aims to have the resolution drafted by the end of the week.

Attendees at the meeting did point out that Buffalo has many features of community-police relationships seen as a model for other cities, including a close affiliation with local anti-violence groups like the Peacemakers and Buffalo United Front, as well as a strong block club program. Residents were encouraged to take part in such organizations to reinforce those ties.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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