The Buffalo Police Department is disbanding a special unit that ostensibly targets gang, guns and drug activity in the face of criticism over what some regard as its heavy-handed tactics.
Police officials confirmed the 19 officers and supervisors in the unit, known as Strike Force, will be reassigned effective March 12. The fate of a related operation known as the Housing Unit, which operates in and around the city’s public housing projects, is not known.
Investigative Post in September published a report that documented misconduct on the part of Strike Force and Housing Unit officers. Its reporting turned up ten criminal court cases involving Strike Force and the Housing Unit in which judges tossed out evidence seized by officers on the grounds police had no reasonable justification to conduct the searches. In two of those instances, judges raised questions about the testimony of officers because of conflicting video evidence or its sheer implausibility.
Some defense attorneys characterized Strike Force and Housing Unit officers as “vigilantes” with a “cowboy mentality.”
“I think they have a complete disregard for the Constitution of the United States, and most importantly, the Fourth Amendment,” Michael Stachowski, a Buffalo defense attorney, told Investigative Post. “They just seem to roust kids in the street, chase people, and hope they find contraband.”
The New York State Attorney General’s Office announced in December it would investigate the tactics of these two units in response to a two-year study by University of Buffalo and Cornell law schools, which alleged a pattern of illegal searches and vehicle checkpoints, discriminatory policing and other misconduct by police.
Strike Force was also the subject of repeated street protests. Community organizers and activists have marched outside police headquarters and disrupted Mayor Byron Brown’s “State of the City” address last February.
“They were started to be tough on crime and we know that’s coded language for policing black and brown neighborhoods,” said Natasha Soto, a co-founder of Just Resisting, a racial and criminal justice group that promotes the empowerment of people of color.
Soto and her organization, which spearheaded the citizen effort to disband Strike Force, still want the Housing Unit abolished. So does another activist group, the Partnership for the Public Good, which tweeted: “Just like the Strike Force, the Housing Unit has been accused of many instances of misconduct and illegal action in recent yearsOfficers in both Strike Force and the Housing Unit have been involved in high-profile cases. Last week, the state attorney general issued a report on the death of Jose Hernandez-Rossy, who was fatally shot after being stopped by two Housing Unit officers in May. The AG declined to file criminal charges against the police involved.
Unlike a regular unit, Strike Force can patrol anywhere in the city and its officers are deployed to high-crime neighborhoods. They and the Housing Unit officers also routinely conduct traffic checkpoints, which have been a flash point for public ire against the police.
Community organizers and the coalition of lawyers and Black Lives Matter activists who filed a complaint with the attorney general contend the checkpoints are unconstitutional and discriminatory because they say they are most often in black and Latino neighborhoods. Police initially failed to provide checkpoint data when requested by the Common Council, but relented in September and provided information on two months of stops that showed that a majority of the check points were in the Lovejoy, North and Niagara districts.
The traffic stops were just a portion of duties of Strike Force and Housing Unit officer, who between them made 1,826 arrests, 120 of them gun related, between July 2016 to July 2017, the only year of data police provided to Investigative Post.
Strike Force was established by Mayor Byron Brown in 2012. Over time, it earned a reputation among some in the city’s African American community for what was considered bully boy tactics that contributed to strained relations between police and many inner-city residents.
One witness testified in court about an interaction with a Strike Force officer in 2015 who he said told him: “We work for the mayor. We’re Strike Force. We can do whatever the fuck we want to do.”
The decision to disband Strike Force follows the sudden retirement of Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda on January 18. Brown appointed one of his deputies, Byron Lockwood, as interim commissioner. Neither Lockwood nor Brown responded to interview requests seeking an explanation for their decision to disband Strike Force or what, if any changes are planned for the Housing Unit.
At an afternoon press conference, Capt. Jeff Rinaldo said: “When there’s a new commissioner, new priorities are set in place and Commissioner Lockwood has decided to make a few changes to begin with and one of them was to reallocate manpower to the traffic division to enhance their mission and their abilities.”
Investigative Post is a nonprofit investigative journalism center that focuses on issue of importance to Western New York.