|Date:||April 24, 2022|
By: Charlie Specht | April 24, 2022
More than 225 police officers and jail guards in Western New York have been suspended, fired or resigned while facing allegations of misconduct in the last five years.
The News’ analysis represents the broadest public review ever conducted of police misconduct cases in Erie and Niagara counties. The total number of officers who were suspended, fired or who resigned while under investigation for misconduct is likely even higher than The News' tally because The News did not seek records from the smallest law enforcement forces.
Members of law enforcement – while acknowledging that such incidents were inexcusable and warranted discipline – cautioned that they were not representative of the hundreds of police officers who have served with honor.
A Buffalo News analysis showed the roughly 225 officers who were suspended for misconduct, were fired or resigned while facing discipline in the last five years comprised 12% of total officers in those departments as of 2019.
“The vast majority of officers in Western New York, they try very hard to do the right thing every day,” said Thomas A. Beilein, a former Niagara County sheriff. “There’s a few that cause most of the problems, and they usually are frequent flyers when it comes to discipline.”
Police reform advocates said The News’ findings disappointed them – but did not surprise them.
“I think it’s consistent with everything else I’ve seen about police discipline,” said attorney Miles Gresham, a member of the Erie County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Task Force, which was appointed by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to review the Sheriff's Office. “Generally, police are rarely held accountable for their actions, and when they are, the disciplinary action is almost always too light.”
Records were off-limits
The scope of police misconduct in New York has been hidden for years, shielded by an obscure part of state law that made police personnel records off-limits to the public. That statute, known as Civil Rights Law 50-a, was repealed in 2020 after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
After the law’s repeal, The Buffalo News filed Freedom of Information Law requests to local government agencies for the disciplinary records of officers and other law enforcement personnel who are paid with tax dollars.
Sheriffs in Erie and Niagara counties and police in the towns of Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Hamburg have in some ways lived up to the law’s new promise of transparency, releasing spreadsheets and summaries of internal affairs cases that shed new light on how police agencies police their own.
The Buffalo Police Department had such an antiquated system of record-keeping that leaders originally said it would take months to provide files on its more than 800 officers. The department has since turned over basic disciplinary records on hundreds of officers who were suspended or fired.
But there is delay and hesitancy in other departments to turn over their disciplinary records.
The New York State Police said The News’ record request – which asked for sustained allegations against all troopers in Western New York’s Troop A – was too broad and could not be fulfilled because troopers often move between different troops or areas of the state.
For 17 months, the Niagara Falls Police Department failed to release a single disciplinary record in response to The News’ Freedom of Information request. City officials in October 2020 said the request for police disciplinary records would be granted or denied within 20 business days, though they said response times would be affected by Covid-19.
More than 350 business days passed before the city – after follow-up inquiries by The News – produced a ledger of more than 200 misconduct cases dating back to 2015.
Through a spokesperson, Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino said the city’s law department was responsible for the delay. Police Chief John Faso said the police department did not oppose the release of the records.
Cheektowaga Police Chief Brian J. Gould said the new law, along with the proliferation of body-worn cameras, has ushered in a new era of transparency for law enforcement in New York.
“It’s been a challenging thing for police officers to get used to that change, but I think it does absolutely help with public confidence in the profession,” Gould said.
But Cheektowaga – after originally releasing hundreds of files to The News on many of its officers – has, after consulting with attorneys, begun to deny some FOIL requests on the grounds that the records contain “technical violations” that “do not involve interactions with members of the public” or “are not of public concern.”
“At the same time, we have to answer to our employees,” Gould said.
The New York State Public Officers Law states that for police disciplinary records, "a law enforcement agency may redact records pertaining to technical infractions." The law defines technical infractions as rule violations that "do not involve interactions with members of the public, are not of public concern, and are not otherwise connected to such person's investigative, enforcement, training, supervision, or reporting responsibilities."
Building a database
The News took the paper and digital records of more than 1,300 internal affairs cases provided by local police departments and entered them into a database to identify trends in how law enforcement agencies police their own.
In addition to the departments named above, there are also records from police agencies in Amherst, Lancaster, the City of Tonawanda, West Seneca and the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority Police.
The database also includes records of some case de-certifications involving New York state police, Lackawanna police and Lockport police that came from the State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The database of allegations includes excessive use of force, false arrests, sleeping or drinking alcohol on duty, sick time abuse, domestic disputes, drunken driving, allowing prisoners to escape, falsifying records, insubordination and workplace harassment.
The News did not include in the database cases where the outcome was not clear, where the allegations were withdrawn or where the cases are still being reviewed by police agencies.
When supervisors determined there was misconduct by their officers, the most common punishments were verbal or written reprimands, which were given 52% of the time. Thirty-nine percent of cases resulted in suspensions, which ranged from one shift to 60 days. Less than 10% of the time the officers were fired, resigned or retired while facing disciplinary measures.
Roughly 200 cases involved allegations of police officers using excessive force on civilians.
When police internal affairs units investigated the use of force, they either exonerated their fellow officers or said there was not enough evidence to prove wrongdoing 86% of the time. Police agencies found their officers used excessive force 28 times in a five-year period.
Excessive force in Tonawanda
One excessive force case involved Adam Cruz, a City of Tonawanda police officer.
Cruz, a Tonawanda native who said it was his lifelong ambition to be a police officer, was hired in 2017 and caught a burglar in the act just one week after he completed the police academy.
He received notoriety for that arrest, but a series of incidents involving the escalating use of force later cost him his job.
In 2018, he was reprimanded for acting “hastily” in arresting three men who were suspected of damaging “road closed” signs. Supervisors said Cruz and his partner should only have arrested two of the men.
Two years later, Cruz deployed his Taser while officers were trying to handcuff a man. One of the Taser prongs attached to the man’s hand but another prong hit a fellow officer.
“PO Cruz owned up to the mistake and realizes he should not have used the Taser with officers in extremely close proximity to the target,” his supervisor wrote.
But on June 1, 2020, Cruz stopped a vehicle after receiving a report of a Molotov cocktail being thrown out of a car’s window on the Niagara Thruway.
After the driver and one passenger exited the vehicle on Cruz’s orders, a second passenger – a girl under the age of 18 – stepped out of the vehicle with her arms above her head. Police said the girl failed to turn around when ordered to, so Cruz “charged” at the woman and “used his leg to perform a ‘front push kick’ striking [redacted] in the chest which knocked her against the car, causing her to fall to the ground and sustain injury.”
One witness told police that she was pretty sure the girl "was knocked out cold before she hit the ground. I then watched her get dragged by her sweatshirt hoodie across the road.”
The woman later told police that she “must have blacked out” after Cruz struck her. A female officer asked her if she needed medical attention. She said she had injuries to her head, face, legs, knees, heels, neck and jaw.
“Officer Cruz’s use of force on the occupant was unnecessary, as she was of no immediate threat to any of the officers at the scene,” a supervisor wrote, adding that he “did not need to rapidly escalate” the situation.
Cruz was suspended for 15 days. He signed an agreement with the Tonawanda mayor stating that although he “committed various acts of misconduct,” the city would provide Cruz “one last chance” to keep his job if he stayed out of trouble.
But less than six months later, Tonawanda police notified the state that they were removing Cruz for cause “for incompetence or misconduct pursuant to…an employee's resignation or retirement while a disciplinary process has commenced.”
The city and Cruz are also named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court after Cruz left the force. Video shows Cruz in 2019 tackled a vendor at Canal Fest. Police at the time said Cruz was breaking up a fight, but the man said the tackle was unprovoked and that he was seriously injured.
Reached by phone, Cruz declined to comment about his discipline record. Tonawanda Police Capt. Fredric Foels said the city's police chief declined to comment on Cruz, other than to say he left the department in October 2020.
Sheriff’s deputy used racial slur
Misconduct allegations may have led Cruz to turn in his badge, but other officers who were found to have committed misconduct kept their jobs.
Niagara County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Flagler was one of them.
Flagler wasn’t disciplined for anything he did in uniform. But the words he used during an off-duty incident with a motorist were so “totally unacceptable” that sheriff’s officials were compelled to act, disciplinary records stated.
In July 2017, Flagler was involved in a dispute during which Flagler yelled at a man, using the worst racial slur that can be aimed at Black people.
His superiors wrote to Flagler, “This type of language is totally unacceptable in any circumstance and certainly qualifies as a derogatory comment in regards to the citizen’s race or national origin.”
Flagler was suspended without pay for seven days. Now retired, he said in an interview with The News that he regrets the incident.
“I don’t want something like that to define me, because that’s not who I am,” Flagler said.
Flagler said he was in a hurry when a car cut in front of him while he was exiting the driveway of a business.
“I had a lot of things on my plate to get done, and I got cut off coming out of that driveway, and I yelled out my window, and they turned around and stopped in front of me and confronted me in the middle of the street,” he said.
The driver of the vehicle was Black and the two passengers were white, but Flagler said he did not realize the driver was Black when he made the comment. He said he is not a racist.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “You don’t define someone from a 5-minute action.”
Gresham, who is a policy fellow at the nonprofit Partnership for the Public Good, said police officers who use racial slurs should not be able to keep their jobs.
When asked about the incident, Niagara County Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti – who was undersheriff at the time – said in a written statement, “This is not the type of conduct that is expected or tolerated from a member of this office. This complaint was handled swiftly and with appropriate discipline.”
Officers rarely fired
Even the excessive force allegations that were substantiated by police departments rarely resulted in the firings or resignations of officers, The News’ analysis showed.
Of the 28 sustained excessive force cases reviewed by The News, six officers were fired or resigned.
The other 22 officers were either suspended for one or more days, “counseled” or reprimanded by their superiors.
Beilein, the former Niagara County sheriff, said state civil service laws, powerful police unions and arbitrators who often side with police make it difficult for police chiefs and sheriffs to fire officers who have crossed the line.
“Is this a person who’s been there 15 years and it’s the first time you’ve ever disciplined him? You’re probably not going to be able to sustain a firing unless it’s very egregious,” he said.
Gresham said the lack of consequences for police officers in high-profile misconduct cases is one reason public trust in police has fallen in recent years.
“If police officers as a class are being held in a lower regard, it’s primarily because most police departments protect their worst officers as vigorously as they do their best ones,” Gresham said. “If you got rid of those officers … I think public opinion towards the police would change significantly.”
News staff reporters Matthew Spina and Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.
To read the full article on The Buffalo News website, click here. The article also includes videos and photos of acts of misconduct as well as the full database mentioned in the article.