Buffalo News: "Rod Watson: Civilian review of cops? Another reform may have to come first"

Date: March 29, 2023

Rod Watson | March 29, 2023

When you get right down to it, Buffalo’s inability to get enough Common Council votes to implement meaningful civilian review of cops might have as much to do with election reform as it does with police reform.

Buffalo’s police union vehemently opposes the idea, and the reality is that as long as unions – as well as private sector special interests – can play an outsized role in elections, it doesn’t really matter what reforms the general public might want.

Change how elections are funded, and you change the odds of the public getting what it wants in terms of governmental policy.

The idea of civilian review has been kicked around in Buffalo since at least the 1980s, when then-Council Member Jim Pitts, the NAACP and others begun pushing this rock up the hill – and getting nowhere. It got renewed attention after the 2020 murder of George Floyd – with the same result so far.

Every time it comes up, the police union is among the most vociferous critics. Just as school unions are among the biggest obstacles to education reform. Just as business groups are among the biggest obstacles to tax reform. And just as pharmaceutical groups are the biggest obstacles to drug pricing reform.

Former Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who died earlier this month, put it best years ago when she said, “We have the best government money can buy,” adding that Washington is a “coin-operated legislative machine.”

That description could apply to every level of government as long as politicians are so dependent on special interests to fund their campaigns.

When University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt told The Buffalo News last week that he’s had trouble convincing his colleagues that such a review board could be filled with impartial members, it was a polite way of saying the police union would never support such a board unless it is filled with police officers themselves. Indeed, Buffalo’s police union chief said his group would “exhaust every resource to fight it.”

Only by making Council members more dependent on citizen dollars, and less dependent on union support, would such a reform have a chance.

Other cities already have moved in that direction.

In New York City, candidates for local offices can get public financing at an 8-1 ratio up to maximum amounts as long as they meet certain criteria.

Similarly, San Francisco candidates who raise contributions of up to $100 from a minimum number of contributors can qualify for limited matching public funds.

In Albuquerque, candidates who get qualifying contributions from at least 1% of the voters in their district can qualify for public funding.

And Seattle voters implemented Democracy Vouchers. Funded with a $3 million appropriation that costs taxpayers about $8 a year, the program gives each voter four $25 vouchers that they can direct to the City Council candidate of their choice who qualifies.

Though such systems differ in their details, they have a common goal: All are designed to, in the words of San Francisco officials, “strengthen the accountability of candidates to the voters who elect them” and “encourage new and diverse voices among candidates.”

Thanks to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that still allow torrents of outside money, such systems don’t completely level the playing field. But they help when politicians have to choose between the interests of groups like the police union, which can be a powerful force come election season, and those of ordinary citizens.

Wyatt said this week that he still hopes to persuade some of his reluctant – I would say fearful – Council colleagues that such a board would not include “radicals.” No doubt the infighting that plagued the Council’s ill-fated Police Advisory Board didn’t help in that regard.

But Wyatt said it’s not about being pro-police or anti-police. Rather, it’s about ensuring the rule of law. To underscore the need for impartial citizen review, he pointed to a 2017 Investigative Post finding that 97% of the abuse complaints probed by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division ended in a finding of “not substantiated.” How can citizens have any confidence in a process like that?

Still, he noted the political influence that roughly 750 police officers and their families can exert.

That influence could be countered with a reform like public funding so that Council members aren't so depending on support from such special interests every time they run for office.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, mentioned another reform that also could help: restoring at-large Council seats that were eliminated in 2002, so that some members have a citywide perspective.

That perspective could offset the views of Council members representing more affluent districts with fewer residents of color and whose constituents don’t regularly encounter problems with cops. Those at-large members might thus provide the extra votes needed to pass a reform like civilian review.

But even those members could be subject to a union pressure campaign, which again underscores the need for public funding to help tip the scales back toward average citizens. The concept was talked about – albeit briefly – several years ago. In fact, it was the lead item on PPG’s 2016 Community Agenda (before Ó Súilleabháin was hired), and Common Cause/New York praised the Council in 2014 for establishing a task force to explore public funding of Buffalo’s elections.

But then the issue seems to have disappeared, never to be heard from again even as other cities have embraced public funding.

Though it gets little attention, public funding of elections is one of the few issues – along with voting rights – that has an impact on every other issue that voters say they care about because it determines whether or not their voices will be heard.

You want civilian review of Buffalo police without first enacting public funding of elections? Good luck. As the local told the visitor trying to find a popular tourist attraction: You can’t get there from here.

Read this article on The Buffalo News' website, here.