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Ethics complaint filed over Mayor Brown ad that features Buffalo Police officers

Buffalo Police Department officers appear in a Sept. 14 ad by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown's reelection campaign. The 30-second ad, posted to YouTube, is the subject of a complaint filed with the city's Board of Ethics.
Brown for Buffalo Campaign
Buffalo Police Department officers appear in a Sept. 14 ad by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown's reelection campaign. The 30-second ad, posted to YouTube, is the subject of a complaint filed with the city's Board of Ethics.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s recent campaign ad that features city police officers is now the subject of a complaint filed with the city’s Board of Ethics.

Local attorney Stephanie A. Adams filed the complaint Monday with the signatures of about 130 others. The complaint alleges officers' appearance in the ad may violate the city’s code of ethics and police manual, as well as state and federal law.

“They're speaking in their capacity as officers. Does that cross the line into something that's illegal?” Adams said in an interview with WBFO Wednesday. “And the more I looked at it, the more concerned I became.”

The 30-second ad, which debuted Sept. 14 and can be found on the Brown campaign’s YouTube and Twitter pages, features about 20 Buffalo Police Department officers standing together. Some of them appear to be dressed in official department apparel, according to the complaint.

Several of the officers take turns speaking, saying that 100 BPD officers will be laid off if Brown’s opponent, Democratic nominee India Walton, is elected mayor. The officers add that many of these layoffs would be women and people of color, as they are the department’s most recent hires.

“Our job is keeping Buffalo safe,” says an officer.

“We can’t do that under India Walton,” adds another.

Adams, who said she is a registered Green Party voter but a Walton supporter, said the ad was sent to her by people in the community.

“I actually initially looked at it through the First Amendment lens, thinking … each one of these individual municipal employees has a First Amendment right to express their political opinions,” she said. “And as I thought about it, I thought, ‘This isn't just an individual on their own volition making a statement, whether it be on Facebook, to a journalist, at a local bar, or anything like that. This is a group of people participating in what, as far as I can tell, is a scripted and coordinated political advertisement that is credited to a registered political action committee.’”

The ad says it was paid for by the “Brown for Buffalo” campaign.

The complaint notes that the BPD manual says New York Election Law prohibits officers from using their office to “aid or oppose any political party,” while BPD rules and regulations state officers cannot not use their position “for political purpose.”

State election law also prohibits officers from soliciting money for a political fund or committee, according to the complaint, while federal law prohibits officers from using their influence to interfere with the result of an election.

Adams said she wants the city’s Board of Ethics to examine how officers’ appearance in the ad came together. BPD rules and regulations says that officers cannot allow their names or photographs to be used in a commercial advertisement without the police commissioner’s permission, while the city’s code of ethics says city employees cannot use their position to secure “unwarranted benefits” for themselves or others.

“In my mind, that's either the mayor or [Commissioner Byron Lockwood] somewhere in the chain of command,” Adams said. “Either the mayor requested that this happen, or he was aware of this action by his committee.”

The Brown campaign has released a statement saying the ad “speaks for itself,” and that the complaint against it has “no validity whatsoever."

The city’s Board of Ethics, according to the city charter, has the power to recommend disciplinary actions against city employees and issue fines of up to $10,000. The board must complete its preliminary review within 90 days of receiving a complaint.

The board includes City Hall attorneys Timothy Ball and Cavette Chambers, as well as city Clerk Tianna Marks. Its last posted meeting minutes are from October 2019.

Walton, a political newcomer and Democratic Socialist who upset Brown in the June Democratic primary, said Wednesday she believes the ad is “an abuse of power,” but that her campaign will not take any action against the Brown campaign or the officers featured in the ad.

“What I would love though is if I could have a conversation with those officers and sit down and tell them what my plan is for community safety,” she said.

Walton denied the ad’s claim that she plans to lay off 100 officers. She’s proposing a $7.5 million reallocation of the police budget, but has argued it can be achieved through attrition, reducing the need for overtime, and using counselors for nonviolent mental health calls.

“You’re not going to get fired. Come see me,” she said she’d tell the officers.

Brown, a 16-year incumbent, is waging a write-in campaign against Walton for the Nov. 2 election, after a failed legal effort to get on the ballot as an independent candidate.

Adams said she doesn’t want the precedent set by Brown’s ad “to go unchallenged.”

“I don't think that precedent should stand,” she said. “Buffalo deserves better.”

WBFO Reporter Emyle Watkins contributed reporting to this story.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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