|Date:||October 26, 2020|
On Friday, October 23, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, together with Common Council President Darius Pridgen, announced three new initiatives under their Buffalo police reform agenda—tasers, a lasso-type restraining device called BolaWrap, and a data analytics center. This announcement continues the worrying trend of reforms that are at odds with residents’ priorities.
Less lethal approaches to public safety are a welcome attempt; however, we believe time and money are best spent on proven policy solutions, such as diversion programs, civilian oversight, and community-based health programs.
The package announced on Friday will instead invest $3.9 million in unproven technological solutions, adding new weapons to officers’ belts, rather than adding services to build safer, healthier communities.
Tasers, classified as “electroshock weapons,” have well-documented problems and can cause cardiac emergencies for some people. As recently as September, the City of Buffalo delayed its purchase of Tasers due to budget constraints, according to the Buffalo News. Surely, the $1 million allocated to Tasers can be better spent on some of the proven community-based reforms listed below.
BolaWrap, classified as a “non-lethal weapon,” was developed in 2016 and modeled after the “bolas” or lasso-like hunting weapons used by South American “gauchos” or horsemen “to wrangle animals,” according to the Washington Post. Particularly worrying is the current proposal to pilot BolaWrap with the Buffalo Police Department’s Behavioral Health Team, which is the City’s new unit to respond to people experiencing mental health crises.
Some cities around the United States are taking steps to remove police from mental health response, noting that police are poorly prepared to help people in crisis and provide needed care. (Los Angeles, Denver, and Eugene have done this; Chicago is exploring it.) This position was recently supported by the American Psychiatric Association, CIT International and other national mental health organizations in an open letter. Rather than remove police from mental health response, Buffalo recently announced a program embedding social workers with the Behavioral Health Team.
The BolaWrap seems in direct conflict with a care-based approach. How will individuals in crisis respond when a lasso is discharged rapidly, encircling their body to “bring them down,” and embedding them with fish-hooks? What are the criteria for when an officer can use their discretion to discharge the device — and how will social workers on the scene then be trusted to provide care, when the incident includes this aggressive weapon? (For videos of the device being tested in Buffalo, click here.)
Residents and community organizations have called for improved public data on policing in Buffalo for years. For example, requests include publicly releasing “stop data” in a searchable database to monitor for racial bias in police stops. This step has not been taken to date, despite the Mayor Brown’s addition of “stop tickets” or “stop receipts” as an early part of the Buffalo Reform Agenda in June, a policy that should make stop data easily available. Data on stops, on-site appearance tickets, and desk appearance tickets should be made available to the public.
Friday’s announcement of a 3-year contract with SAS Institute to create a data analytics center for the Buffalo Police Department raises many questions. What data will be collected, and what kind of analysis and reports will be made available to the public? Will this data be available on the City’s website or Open Data Buffalo portal? These answers should be provided, with time for public comment and consultation with the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, before a data system is approved by Common Council.
The 3-year data contract comes at a cost of $1.3 Million for the first year, and $800,000 per year for years two and three, as reported in the Buffalo News. With a public investment of this size, the City must ensure that citizens will have access to the data, to evaluate police performance, and that the Police Advisory Board is empowered to use the database in its work. Any data system that is solely the property of the police department should not be funded; it should be accessible to the people of Buffalo.
INVEST IN COMMUNITY PRIORITIES
For years, residents and community advocates have called on the Mayor, Common Council, and the Buffalo Police Department to dramatically change policing in the City of Buffalo. Among many priorities for change, Buffalo residents and community groups have called for:
While some meaningful progress has been made in the Mayor’s Buffalo Reform Agenda this year — notably, issuing appearance tickets instead of making custodial arrests for low-level offenses; repealing 13 traffic fees added in 2018; limiting no-knock search warrants — some changes continue to show a disconnect between residents’ urgent concerns and the City’s proposed solutions.
For example, in September, the City announced a policy change to no longer require Buffalo Police officers to wear name badges on their uniforms. The Buffalo Police Advisory Board said that this police change “fails to live up to the standards of transparency and accountability to the public” that it calls for, risking “further eroding community trust and safety.” Last week, the Minority Bar Association of Western New York also urged Mayor Brown and Police Commissioner Lockwood to rescind the policy.
The solution to punitive policing, prone to excessive use of force, is not to invest in less-lethal weapons, but for police to handle crisis situations differently than they do now. And as many advocates--in Buffalo and nationwide--have expressed this year, the real solution is to remove police from many health-related crises in the first place, and to fund alternatives to arrest and community health programs.
The three initiatives announced on Friday are on the agenda of the Buffalo Common Council tomorrow, on Tuesday, October 27 (the regular meeting, at 2pm).
We call on Common Council to refuse funding for any additional weapons for the Buffalo Police Department, as the Free the People WNY Coalition has called for this year.
We call on Common Council to request and provide more information on the proposed data system, and how it fulfills the data and transparency requests made by residents, community organizations, and the Buffalo Police Advisory Board in recent years.
We invite residents to call and email their Council Members, urging them not to approve the proposed initiatives at tomorrow’s meeting.
Quotes from partners and reform advocates:
“We are disappointed by the continuous attempts to distract from the real issue at hand with talk of BolaWraps and tasers,” says Emma Fabian, member of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Buffalo and local social worker. “The real issue at hand is that community members do not feel safe with current police culture. This is especially true for community members who are black and brown or are part of vulnerable groups. More radical change is called for.”
“Advocates, researchers, and directly impacted folks have presented this administration with viable and smart policy solutions to change policing since 2015,” notes India Walton, justice reform advocate in Buffalo. “We don’t want half measures and performative ‘reforms,’ we see what is happening here. With each reform the police budget continues to balloon. We want money taken out of the police budget, we want our resources to be put back into our community.”
“The faith community of VOICE Buffalo is concerned about the City's commitment to further invest in equipment that has consistently harmed and failed to protect Black lives. It should take those resources — which are earmarked for mental health and substance abuse — and use it to fund the implementation of LEAD, a program that the Mayor's office has committed to, but not moved forward on due to an alleged lack of funding,” said Denise Walden, a VOICE Buffalo faith leader and Live Free Buffalo Organizer. “It’s time to use best practices and work in partnership WITH community, not around them.”
“We encourage the City to explore holistic, community and culturally-responsive, and trauma-informed approaches that prevent hurt and harm to our residents. The City must promote non-violence in policies, practices and programs to promote a healthy, safe and equitable Buffalo,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, Director of the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo.
“The City of Buffalo has proven that community has no input on how we want to be protected. We hear so many stories and watch many videos of bad policing. Seeing the investment in more weapons rather than solutions to deal with mental illness shows us what government priorities are. We need change!” said Christian Parra, Community Organizer with Citizen Action of New York.
“The residents of the City of Buffalo have been petitioning their elected officials for years to defund the police and invest our money in communities of color and much-needed community services. The people have been clear about their priorities and they couldn't be more different from those of City Hall,” said Harper Bishop, Deputy Director of Movement Building at PUSH Buffalo. “While the Mayor and the Buffalo Common Council plan to spend $3.9 million in unproven technological solutions and unnecessary new weapons under the guise of reform, the people are once again voicing their opposition to it and instead offering community-based solutions that will create a more equitable, safe, and just Buffalo for all.”