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Mayor Brown joins community advocates to announce police reforms, 'start' of conversations

Michael Mroziak/WBFO News
Community activist Mercedes Overstreet speaks Wednesday afternoon during Mayor Byron Brown's announcement of policy changes within the Buffalo Police Department.

Flanked by representatives of the Free The People WNY Coalition, Common Councilmembers, members of Buffalo Police Department and two National Football League players, Mayor Byron Brown announced a series of changes in the city's police policy while vowing that conversations to address social inequity have only just begun.

Brown announced steps to build restorative policing within the city of Buffalo. The immediate steps to be taken, he said, include increased departmental transparency. Such steps include policies for the review of officers' body camera footage, publishing policies - including the department's Use of Force policy - on city and police websites, strengthened de-escalation training programs, and the forming of a commission to examine police procedures and make recommendations on how they may be amended to better reflect restorative policies.

He also announced executive orders which include the end of arrests for low-level, non-violent offenses in the city. In such cases, appearance tickets will be issued instead. Brown is also acting to take crowd control duties out of the hands of the Emergency Response Team and hand them to a new Public Protection Unit that will assist and protect any group that wished to peacefully protest in the City of Buffalo.

"The proposals we're announcing today are a critical first step in a shared journey that we must all undertake to help make Buffalo more just, inclusive and equitable for black people who call this city home. People all over our city, county, region and nation are crying out that black lives matter," Brown said. "The tragic death of George Floyd caused a global movement to end racial injustice and police brutality. No one knows if the global calls for reform we are hearing now, from people of every background, would be happening without those rogue police officers horrifically killing George Floyd, with cameras rolling. Because of what they did, the moment we are at now is not the time for talk. But this is a time for real action."

Christian Para of Citizen Action, and a member of the Free The People WNY Coalition, said he and his colleagues met with the mayor for seven hours to discuss ways to bring change.

"This is only the beginning of the demands that were met as of today," Para said. "And he has met some of our demands. So these are, once again, the first conversations that we do have. We want to open it up to the community when we do have town halls and Mayor Brown said that he will continue the conversations, and even be part of the town halls and has committed to at least 10 times meeting with us a year."

Speakers include two professional football players who are active in fostering community relations and addressing social injustice. DeMario Davis, of the New Orleans Saints, recited a passage from the Bible's Second Book of Chronicles referring to forgiveness of the land if its people are willing to turn from wicked ways. He said oppression has existed since the foundation of this nation, and a knee has been on the neck of an entire people all that time. But, he added, "the time has come to reset and make things right."

Josh Norman, a seven-year National Football League veteran who joined the Buffalo Bills earlier this year, has vowed to help however he can as a member of his new community. He says people are talking about helping future generations, but there won't be a future generation if things don't change. And the new generation is eager for real change.

"Nobody wants to see anything being burned down in their city. Nobody wants to see the looting. But this younger generation, I'm telling you, they're different," he said. "They're really different. Talk is cheap. Step up to that action, boss, because they are different. And really, to be honest with you, they have a point."

Activist Mercedes Overstreet, a Coalition member, told the audience that the social injustices and issues being faced are a detriment to youth.

"Our youth are dealing with these issues. Why we even started walking Monday? To watch them fight for what they believe in, and be harmed because of what they believed in, is something that shouldn't happen in the year 2020," she said. "I need everyone here to hold accountability to the police that are not doing their jobs. I need you all to be a backing to this movement. Because like we said, it didn't just start here. It has to finish and end. We have to hold everybody accountable that has the responsibility to change these laws, so we can change the future generations, so they're not in this system that they shouldn't be in due to being in poverty and mental health."

Community activists who have participated in street protests have echoed the call to “defund the police.” Marielle Smith, a community organizer with Black Love Resists in the Rust, says police have been given an excessive amount of money and have not done the job properly. Take funds away from police, she suggests, and invest them in programs and strategies that, as they see it, will address inequity at its roots.

"We need to see these investments all around the city, not just in selected areas where there's developers. It needs to be all around the city," she said. "And for it to be all over the city, that means there's going to be money needed. So that's where we're saying defund the police. Police don't need that much money. Give it back to us, so that we can decide and determine what is needed, as a community."

Advocates for law enforcement, though, say removing funds from police departments will adversely affect some of the prevention measures officers have taken on as part of their jobs. Jerry Gill, a former police officer and now an attorney and professor of Criminal Justice at Erie Community College, says police departments are doing what their communities want them to do.

"We have received training to be school resource officers, to be a community policing entity, to train for de-escalation and homelessness sensitivity, treatment versus prosecution for drug offenders, and implicit bias recognition," he told WBFO.

During Mayor Brown's announcement, Buffalo Police officers Michael Norwood and Moe Badger, known as the "Singing Cops," explained their introduction of a program known as COPSS, or Children Overcoming Police Stereotypes through Sports, as a means to build relationships between police and the community. They're also planning a Unity Walk.

"I challenge all police officers across Western New York, of all municipalities, gender and race. I challenge the whole entire Western New York, gender and race, to come out with us. I challenge corporate Buffalo to come out with us for one walk, one unity walk to all come together to stand for peace and love," Norwood said. "This walk will potentially be happening over the next couple of weeks. We will let media know as well as you will see it all over social media platforms. But we ask for peace. We hate to see our city like this, being blanketed by the events that's going on across the world. And we want to come together for at least one day, everybody for love and peace and unity. So I challenge you all. This is something that a lot of people say probably can't be done, but that's totally fine. Let's let the world see what Buffalo is all about."

Gill, meanwhile, stresses that for the bad examples portrayed in news reports, there are countless more officers who do their jobs properly, and peacefully.

"Police use of force is infrequent on the large scale and unjustified use of force is even less so," he said. "And I think if you apply that to the millions of daily encounters, you'll find that the average police officer does his job and does his job well throughout this country."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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