Police release some data in response to complaints about checkpoints

Date: September 27, 2017

For Pridgen, the problem is when checkpoints are used unfairly. He said he would like to see the city adopt an idea submitted by the Partnership for the Public Good to use "fix-it tickets" that don't impose a penalty if the problem is rectified, instead of tickets that come with automatic fines.


Police release some data in response to complaints about checkpoints
By Maki Becker and Deidre Williams | Published September 27, 2017 | Updated September 28, 2017
For the first time ever, the Buffalo Police Department provided the public a detailed list of every traffic checkpoint conducted in the city.

Between Aug. 4 and Sept. 20, police conducted 121 checkpoints that resulted in 1,917 summonses, arrests, towed vehicles and narcotics and gun seizures, according to a report the police filed with the Common Council on Wednesday. The report showed that most checkpoints took place in the Lovejoy, North and Niagara districts during that period.

Residents of the East Side and West Side of Buffalo have long complained to city leaders that their communities were the subject of a disproportionate amount of checkpoints.

"They felt checkpoints weren't being equitably carried out across the city," said  Council President Darius G. Pridgen. "I thought a simple solution was ask for the data."

The report filed late Wednesday afternoon showed that checkpoints were held throughout the city in August and September, with the fewest set up in the Ellicott, University and Masten districts.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Pridgen said of the results. “I think because of the amount of concern from some residents on the East Side, I expected to see more on the East Side.”

Some will be skeptical of the report, Pridgen acknowledged. “I know that after we release this there will be people saying that in June and July they (checkpoints) may have been more heavily on that side of town. I don’t have that proof," he said of the prospect that police changed tactics in the last two months. "What I do have is the proof of now and going forward."

In June, the Council passed a resolution directing the Buffalo Police Department to provide data on its checkpoints – particularly regarding where and when the police were conducting them — going back three years.

At the time, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said that such information wasn't readily available. Pridgen said he then asked for checkpoint data to be collected going forward. The information filed Wednesday was the first time such data on checkpoints has been publicly available.

The department had never been asked to provide such information before, said  Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, a spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department.

"Nobody ever requested it," Rinaldo said.

Now, at the end of shifts, the lieutenant overseeing the checkpoint is required to fill out a form that includes where and when the checkpoint was conducted and a list of tickets, seizures and arrests that were made, Rinaldo said. The exact locations were redacted from public view because police often return to the same locations for checkpoints. Instead, the report shows sections of Council districts where the checkpoints were conducted.

Where Buffalo police conducted vehicle checkpoints
The number of vehicle checkpoints conducted by police since Aug. 4, 2017, by Common Council district.


Late last month, members of Black Lives Matter-Buffalo asked the state Attorney General's Office to open an investigation into the Buffalo Police Department, alleging police routinely discriminate against people of color. The group cited a study by the University at Buffalo Law School and Cornell University that said Buffalo police participated in "routine, daily suspicionless crime-suppression checkpoints" in a letter to the AG's office.

The study found that in the two years after Buffalo police in 2012 formed the "Strike Force Unit," which uses checkpoints as part of its strategy to target gangs and drugs, the number of arrests leveled off but the department issued more than 65,000 tickets, a 65 percent increase over the previous two years.

The use of traffic checkpoints as well as searches in public housing has been reported on previously by the nonprofit investigative journalism site Investigative Post and the weekly alternative paper The Public.

Checkpoints are conducted primarily to promote traffic safety, Rinaldo said. They're also useful in helping deter crime, he said.

The Buffalo police choose the locations based on complaints they get from the public, as well as frequency of traffic accidents, Rinaldo said.

Strike Force handles most checkpoints, he said, because patrol units are responsible for handling calls for service, Rinaldo said.

He rebutted claims that the Buffalo police are singling out certain communities or neighborhoods. "At the end of the day, regardless of your social status, everybody has to be in compliance with the vehicle and traffic laws," Rinaldo said. "It's not done to target any community or block. It's done to ensure traffic safety."

Pridgen wants checkpoint data to continue to be provided to the public on a quarterly basis.

Buffalo police plan on releasing another six months worth of checkpoint information in about a week, although it likely won't be as detailed, Pridgen said Derenda told him Wednesday.

Checkpoints can serve a useful purpose, Pridgen said.

Looking through the reports on each checkpoint, Pridgen said, he saw that nearly every one of them resulted in some type of summons, seizure or arrest.

"When you talk about crime, it does send a message," Pridgen said. At block club meetings, he often hears from constituents who are eager for more police presence.

For Pridgen, the problem is when checkpoints are used unfairly. He said he would like to see the city adopt an idea submitted by the Partnership for the Public Good to use "fix-it tickets" that don't impose a penalty if the problem is rectified, instead of tickets that come with automatic fines.

"So it's not just punitive," Pridgen said, "but they would help people to know they had a light out… Certainly if they got stopped again they would get a ticket."

The report also showed that:

* The Lovejoy District had the most checkpoints with 27, followed by North with 24 and Niagara with 21.

* The Ellicott District had the fewest checkpoints with four, while University had five and Masten had seven.

* The 121 checkpoints produced 1,917 traffic summons, arrests, towed vehicles and narcotics or gun seizures. Most occurred in the Lovejoy District with 542, followed by Niagara with 378 and North with 322.

* In Lovejoy,  the checkpoints yielded five misdemeanor arrests and five towed vehicles, while hydrocodone and $3,341 was seized.

* In the Niagara District, the checkpoints yielded seven misdemeanor arrests; one felony arrest; one warrant arrest; one gun seizure and one narcotics seizure as well as numerous traffic summonses for things like unregistered vehicles, uninspected vehicles and illegally tinted windows.

* In the North District, nine vehicles were towed. There was one violation arrest and one misdemeanor arrest.