Buffalo News: "Some still press for Buffalo police review board. Others vow to 'exhaust every resource to fight it'"

Date: March 23, 2023

By Deidre Williams | March 23, 2023

Creating a civilian review board to handle complaints of police misconduct emerged as one of the bigger changes pushed for in Buffalo following the 2020 protests over policing and George Floyd's death.

Among those backing the idea included the Partnership for the Public Good advocacy group and the Common Council’s Police Advisory Board.

But three years later, Buffalo is no closer to getting one.

University Council Member Rasheed Wyatt had enough support to pass a resolution to look into establishing a board, but not enough to get a vote to establish one. 

What's blocking the idea?

Wyatt points to opposition from fellow Council members who harbor doubts about finding neutral people to put on such a board.

“I’m still working and trying to convince them that this is the right thing to do,” Wyatt said.

“I’m still working and trying to convince them that this is the right thing to do,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt said he envisions a screening process to make sure members would not have any bias toward police or anyone.

"We want someone that can really look at the facts, but that’s the biggest hurdle is that they just didn’t feel that we could do this in this environment,” Wyatt said.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director for the Partnership for the Public Good, said it's disappointing there's been no movement on creating the board. 

“This is still a potentially really important new form of police accountability that we could have in Buffalo,” Ó Súilleabháin said. “Having a new mechanism for accountability that is outside the police department is very important. Civilian oversight is important because it increases transparency and builds trust with community members.”

Personal agenda over the truth
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. is one of the Council members who did not support Wyatt’s resolution.

But he said he would be open to discuss it further.

Golombek points to the troubled experience of the Council’s 11-member Police Advisory Board, formed in March 2018 of city residents to convene public meetings, seek community input regarding police reforms and make recommendations. The advisory board was dissolved about four years later because of internal fighting, including the resignation of five board members in one month and the board’s unwillingness to comply with the Council confirming new members.

“After the debacle of the first board … I would be concerned because if I remember, the first board that we had had a group of citizens on it that were ripping into one another, that were (fighting) with one another, and I have concerns that you would have somebody that would somehow get on the (proposed civilian board), and that their own personal agenda is more important than finding the truth,” Golombek said.

Last May, the Council established the new 11-member Community Police Advisory Committee of city residents to listen to community members, research and develop policy proposals and reforms that can be presented to the Buffalo Police Department. The new board is functioning without any problems, said Niagara Council Member David Rivera, a retired Buffalo police officer. It reviews best practices in other cities, works on recommendations and ideas for submission to the Council's Police Oversight Committee, holds meetings and meets with police, the community and the oversight committee.

Buffalo’s Citizen Review Board was to be modeled after legislation that created the Syracuse Review Board. It was supposed to be more independent than the Council’s PAB and the city’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations, both charged with monitoring police interactions with the community.

The proposed civilian review board would have subpoena power and its own independent counsel and investigators – who would not be members of the Buffalo Police Department – to look into complaints. The board would also be able to bring a police officer before a panel for discipline – including removal from the police force.

Supporters of a civilian board in Buffalo were buoyed when the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office said in April 2021 that Buffalo can establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct. The Attorney General's Office said such a board should hold final disciplinary authority over officers and subpoena power, and it should have a substantial budget and a qualified professional staff to carry out its duties. At a minimum, the board should be able to require the Police Department to state in writing its reasons for deviating from recommended discipline.

The opinion was in response to the city’s draft recommendations on police reform plans that then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo required of communities to adopt by April 2021.
Police union opposition
The Buffalo Police Benevolent Association opposes the concept. In Buffalo, officer discipline is a mandatory negotiable article in the police union’s contract with the city, Police Benevolent Association President John T. Evans said.

In addition, multiple entities already handle complaints of police misconduct, he added, including the Buffalo Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, the State Attorney General’s Office and the FBI.

If the city were to attempt to give a board disciplinary powers, Buffalo's police union would stand against it, Evans said.

"We would exhaust every resource to fight it," he said, adding Buffalo's police union has been closely watching Rochester, where disciplinary power over police has become a thorny issue.

In June 2019, Rochester’s citizens voted to establish the Police Accountability Board as an agency within city government to assume the role of police oversight in that city.

The board’s ability to conduct disciplinary hearings and discipline officers are pending due to a lawsuit filed by the Locust Club, the union representing Rochester police officers.

How it works in other cities

Despite the lawsuit, the Police Accountability Board in Rochester makes determinations of police misconduct. But it’s the police chief who determines disciplinary action and must publicly state why a particular discipline was chosen, said a spokesperson for the board. Before the board was established, the chief did not have to disclose publicly the reason for a particular disciplinary action.

Rochester’s city charter allows the board to:

  • Examine the department's policies, procedures, practices and training.
  • Educate and engage the community on policing and public safety practices.
  • Independently investigate potential wrongdoing by individual officers.
  • Issue subpoenas and review investigatory materials obtained by the department.=
  • Propose policies, procedures and legislation.
  • Hire staff to execute its powers.
  • Require the department and the city to provide the board with any source of information it requests.

In most respects, the Buffalo legislation would be modeled after legislation that created the Syracuse Citizens Review Board, except the Syracuse board does not give members the power to discipline police officers in cases of misconduct. Instead, the board recommends punishment to the police chief, who has the final say. 

But Buffalo proponents want a board that would have the ability to bring a police officer before a panel for appropriate discipline – including removal from the police force.

Established in 1993 and altered in 2011, the Syracuse Citizens Review Board has subpoena power and outside counsel. It's an 11-member panel of volunteers with three chosen by the mayor and eight chosen by the Common Council.

The board handles complaints about failure to act, conduct unbecoming an officer, excessive force, harassment, racial profiling and racial bias. Complainants can also allege improper search, improper seizure and property destruction.

If a case goes to a hearing panel, it listens to the testimony of the complainants and invites the police officers to attend. The panel also can subpoena an officer to testify. The hearing panel can make recommendations involving policy, training and discipline in instances where the panel substantiates cases. The discipline decision is up to the chief of police.


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