News Editorial Board
It’s a number that should stop Western New Yorkers dead in their tracks: In about 12% of police disciplinary cases reviewed by The Buffalo News, an officer has resigned, been suspended or fired after facing allegations of misconduct. Some had faced previous complaints.
It’s just in the last five years. What private sector employer would tolerate this level of wrongdoing?
The analysis makes a powerful argument for reconsidering how police are disciplined, including the structure of arbitration hearings and the expectations of police chiefs protecting their bad apples.
The News reviewed police disciplinary records at 15 of the largest police departments in Erie and Niagara counties after the state repealed Civil Rights Act 50-a. For decades, this law had hidden these documents from the public. The state repealed it following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With research from The News, it’s clear that some cops liked this secrecy and why the taxpayers who fund police officers’ salaries needed this information.
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It wasn’t an analysis of anything but the kitchen sink. The News database was limited to allegations of serious offenses such as excessive use of force, false arrest, sleeping or drinking alcohol on duty, abuse of sick leave , domestic disputes, drunk driving, prisoner escape, falsification of records, insubordination and workplace harassment.
The database excluded cases where the outcome was unclear, where the allegations had been withdrawn, or where the cases were still under investigation by law enforcement. Departments included Buffalo, Cheektawaga, Niagara Falls, Amherst, New York State Police, and Erie and Niagara county sheriff’s offices.
Most often – in 52% of cases – officers received a verbal or written reprimand. It’s certainly a fair approach, depending on the nature of the offense and the number of prior offences. Most of us deserve a second chance most of the time, even though standards must be high for officials who are allowed to bear arms and deprive citizens of their liberty.
But of all these serious violations, only about 12% of officers have resigned, retired or been fired. This is, at least in part, a consequence of the arbitration system that surrounds police disciplinary hearings and the employment contracts that authorize them.
Umpires often side with the police, who belong to powerful unions, as former Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein observed. This makes it difficult for police chiefs and sheriffs to fire officers who abuse their positions, he said.
The problem is compounded by police officers who won’t even discipline their bad apples. Too often they “protect their worst officers as vigorously as their best,” said attorney Miles Gresham, a member of the executive-appointed Erie County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Task Force. of Erie County, Mark Poloncarz, to review the county’s poor situation. perform the sheriff’s office.
“If you got rid of these officers … I think public opinion towards the police would change significantly,” he said.
Erie County residents saw this destructive phenomenon in action three years ago, when former Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard publicly supported then-Deputy Kenneth Achtyl, who was on trial for assaulting a civilian. It didn’t matter to Howard that the video documented the assault or that his own actions diminished trust in the office.
The repeal of 50-a came as an unwanted shock to some police departments. Niagara Falls dragged its feet for more than 17 months before providing The News’ data request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Others were faster, including Cheektowaga. Its police chief, Brian J. Gould, understood both the value of the 50-a repeal and the stress it put on some officers.
“It’s been difficult for police officers to get used to this change, but I think it absolutely contributes to public confidence in the profession,” Gould said. Along with the advent of body cameras, this mandates a level of transparency that will serve the police well. Indeed, it will be interesting to compare the reports of the previous five years with those of the next five years to assess if and how increased transparency has affected the discipline.
This is surely a trying time for the police. But, as they adjust to the reasonable demands of public service, they will garner new support and find their jobs a little less stressful. That’s the benefit for everyone to drop the 50-a coat.
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