As the body count rises—nearly 1,800 civilians fatally shot by police nationwide the past two years—a growing number of law enforcement agencies are retraining their officers to minimize their use of force.
Police are being trained how to de-escalate volatile situations and make smart use of their firearms. It’s part of a policy and cultural shift intended to avoid Ferguson-type scenarios that have rocked city after city the past couple of years.
“Police departments really need to embrace this and get in front of this,” said Paul O’Connell, a policing consultant and professor of criminal justice at Iona College.
Buffalo, however, is lagging behind this shift in American policing, an analysis by Investigative Post has found.
Likewise, community activists and police union leaders agree the Buffalo Police Department needs to provide officers more training.
“Police officers out there are starving, starving for the training,” said Kevin Kennedy, president of the Police Benevolent Association. “They feel frustrated because their ability to do their job effectively is adversely affected by their lack of training.”
Caitlin Blue, an activist with Just Resisting, a local group focusing on social justice issues, said better training is key to fixing broken community-police relations.
“We’re seeing people who are scared to call the police because they don’t know what type of officer we’re going to get,” she said. “Are they going to get somebody who is willing to be patient with them, to de-escalate, or are they going to get somebody who is going to escalate the situation and somebody ends up dead?”
The deficiencies with Buffalo’s training programs are many, according to a review by Investigative Post that included interviews with 14 policing experts, community activists, and government and police officials; information collected from seven police departments in three states; and an analysis of police and Common Council budgets and documents.
Investigative Post determined that Buffalo’s training falls short in quantity and quality:
• The department’s use of force training is not focused on de-escalation tactics; nor does it place officers in real-life scenarios to teach them how to handle stressful situations out on patrol. Instruction is largely provided in a classroom.
• Firearms training also falls short of best practices. Officers are not trained to handle their guns in scenarios that simulate the kinds of stressful interactions they would encounter in real life. In fact, the department’s shoot/don’t shoot simulator has apparently not been used in years.
• Buffalo police this year will receive a total of only two hours of training in firearms and use of force compared to anywhere from 11.5 to 20 hours in other urban departments surveyed.
Officers lack for other type of training, as well. For example, the department hasn’t sent an officer to the FBI National Academy, one of the elite training programs in the country, for at least 16 years.
Outside oversight is lacking. Buffalo is the only big-city police department upstate that is not accredited by the New York State Law Enforcement Accreditation program, which might otherwise review training programs to determine their adequacy.
Meanwhile, an oversight committee re-established in 2014 by the Common Council treads lightly, failing to even follow through to see if money budgeted for training was spent as intended.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda did not return calls seeking his comment, and his office refused to provide a detailed accounting of what training has been provided for the past six years. Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly Beaty defended the department’s training in a phone interview.
“I think our department is going above and beyond as far as training,” she said.
“We’re certainly aware of what’s happening around the country at a national level, but we have to look at what’s occurring in Buffalo,” she said. “I’m not saying that de-escalation isn’t important. We just may address it in a different way.”
Community a potential powder keg
Protests that followed the deaths of a number of African Americans in other states at the hands of police the past several years have been the catalyst to changes in police training. There have been other underlying factors, as well, many of them rooted in the socio-economic problems of inner-city life that are particularly pronounced in Buffalo.
The city lies in the heart of one of the most segregated metropolitan regions in the nation. Half its residents are minority and one in three Buffalonians live in poverty, including half its children. The violent crime rate is relatively high and the police department’s solve rate relatively low: fewer than one-quarter of major crimes, as defined by the FBI, are solved by Buffalo police.
“Can there be a Ferguson or a Baltimore in Buffalo? Absolutely,” Reverend Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and president of the Buffalo Common Council, said in January at an event hosted by Investigative Post.
Pridgen recalled attending a rally in Baltimore shortly after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
“As I’m standing there, right at the stage, if I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was [in Buffalo],” Pridgen said. “What I heard from the stage were the same things that I often hear around here. The trouble with education in the area, the lack, or perceived lack, of opportunity.”
Meanwhile, relations between a police force that is 71 percent white and many inner-city residents who are predominantly black and Hispanic are strained.
Police complain of what they say is an anti-snitch culture that hampers their ability to solve murders and other serious crimes. Some residents counter that police have failed to build sufficient relationships with the community, due in part to what they describe as insensitive conduct. Citizens filed 102 complaints alleging excessive use of force by Buffalo police from 2014 to mid-September 2016.
“Draw your gun, curse everyone out, tell everyone to mind their business, pulling everyone, be derogatory, be inflammatory. This is the norm for the Buffalo Police Department,” said Desmond Abrams, a community organizer involved in activism against police misconduct.
Kennedy, president of the police union, defended the professionalism of his members, while also decrying the department’s failure to update its training program.
“It’s the number one hot button item going across the country right now, and if you stick your head in the sand and don’t address it, you’re going to have a problem,” he said.
Rethinking use of force
In a departure from the past, many police departments have recognized that theoretical instruction in the use of force—when is force legally permissible—is not enough. Police officers need more hands-on training that simulates situations they encounter daily.
“We’re trying to instill in the officers, just because you’re justified, or authorized, or allowed to, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to. So what we’re trying to do is put these officers in real-life situations,” said O’Connell, the professor of criminal justice and a policing consultant.
“You play the way you practice.”
Buffalo has bucked this trend.
The department’s 2016 use of force training involves a review of Article 35, New York’s law on the justifiable use of force and a written pass/fail test.
Steven Cohen, a lawyer who has represented several individuals in civil rights cases against Buffalo police and other departments, says the problem with a perfunctory review of Article 35 is that the law is written in a way that provides a framework for “here’s when you can use your gun,” instead of training officers to use their lethal weapons as a last resort.
Mike Farrell, a smart firearms distributor for police departments across country, said that a non-interactive approach to use of force can be dangerous.
“Taking a written test on something that is an extremely physical and violent event is absolute lunacy,” he said.
Buffalo’s approach to use of force training is also brief. The theoretical review of the use of force is part of a single two-hour block of training on firearms and Article 35.
Other departments integrate use of force reviews within re-training in defensive tactics, physical and communications maneuvers, including de-escalation, that ensure a possibly resistant civilian complies using the least amount of force.
“What we’re trying to tell the officer is if it’s life and death, by all means, protect others and protect yourself. But if there’s an opportunity—and it’s a big if—to step back to de-escalate, we would prefer that you do that and wait for the proper backup,” said O’Connell, the professor of criminal justice and policing consultant.
When asked how often the department re-trains its officers in defensive tactics, Beaty, the deputy police commissioner, said that those skills are covered at the recruit level and again during periodic refreshers.
Kennedy said that the department has never done a refresher on defensive tactics.
Beaty pointed to the new Emergency Response Team as one way the department has included de-escalation in its training. The Emergency Response Team is deployed to manage mass protests or riots, like the ones that happened after officer-involved shootings in Ferguson or Baltimore, and was first used in Buffalo in April at the Donald Trump rally at the downtown hockey arena.
In September the department also launched a program focused on police encounters with people suffering mental health issues, an initiative done in partnership with Crisis Services of Erie County. This training has a de-escalation component.
But experts and Buffalo’s own officers said that’s not enough.
“Anytime an officer has to be engaged in physical confrontation with another human being, you want them to use the least amount of force necessary to effect the outcome,” said Kennedy. “Now if you take a person that has no training and inject them into a physical confrontation, they’re going to do whatever comes naturally to them.” Reality-based weapons training
Part of this shift in police training extends to how departments train officers in weapons, particularly firearms. The 2015 report by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for departments to conduct annual use of force training involving shoot/don’t shoot simulations, for example, whereby officers are confronted with a life-like scenario on a screen and must decide how to react.
“We’ve now evolved to a point where the most advanced police departments recognize that just proficiency with the weapon is not enough. What we need is officers who make correct judgements,” O’Connell said. “In these interactive, these shoot/don’t shoot scenarios with live actors, or sometimes video, sometimes you never unholster your weapon. And that’s appropriate.”
Again, Buffalo is not keeping up with best practices.
In the one two-hour block that includes the review of Article 35, officers head to the firing range for target shooting. Officers practice shooting at a silhouetted target and might be asked to move between barricades and again acquire the target.
Limiting firearms training to the range is problematic, said Farrell, the smart firearms distributor.
“The range is an extremely controlled environment. It doesn’t accurately simulate what officers are dealing with in a 360 degree environment which is what they’re dealing with on the street every time they step out of their patrol car.”
Buffalo’s shoot/don’t shoot simulator has apparently not been used in years.
The department’s single two-hour block of training on use of force and firearms, coupled with only periodic refreshers on defensive tactics is in stark contrast to what other agencies provide.
This year Cincinnati will provide up to 20 hours training in de-escalation tactics and in firearms, part of which involves using a shoot/don’t shoot simulator. The department also runs drills on use of force that involve both firearms and Tasers.
Rochester Police Department will provide up to 11 ½ hours of training in firearms and defensive tactics, which includes de-escalation.
Syracuse does eight hours of firearms training a year and typically four hours of defensive tactics.
The Pittsburgh Police Department has conducted some form of defensive tactics and de-escalation training every year since at least 2012, and this year will conduct 16 hours of training in defensive tactics alone.
Part of a larger problem
Law enforcement accreditation programs, in which an independent agency evaluates and sets standards for law enforcement departments, offer police the opportunity to stay up to date on professional best practices.
Under the State of New York Law Enforcement Accreditation program, participating departments are required to complete 21 hours of training per year. Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Binghamton are among the 152 departments in New York accredited with the State of New York Law Enforcement Accreditation program. Many local departments are, as well, including the Erie and Niagara County sheriff’s office, Niagara Falls, Amherst, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, and the Town of Tonawanda.
Buffalo is not accredited.
Beaty pointed to obstacles in the union contract. For example, the Law Enforcement Accreditation Program mandates annual performance evaluations for officers. The current contract prohibits such performance evaluations.
Kennedy’s response: The Buffalo Police is not accredited because “of the lack of a formalized in-service training regiment” and “lack of leadership in our department and the lack of emphasis on training.”
According to Police Chief David Zack of Cheektowaga, strong labor-management relations is a key factor to a well-trained force. In order to balance training schedules and patrol shifts without incurring a burdensome level of overtime pay, the union must be willing to adjust officers’ schedules—a point of contention in Buffalo.
Kennedy, president of the local police union, said that the union has no working relationship with Derenda.
“I can definitely speak for the five executive officers of this unit, our hope is that the administration changes,” he said.
This fractured relationship is partly to blame for the absence of Buffalo police officers at the FBI National Academy, a premier training program for police. The academy is a 10-week program that provides instruction in counter-terrorism, intelligence, behavioral science, communications, and management, among other law enforcement related topics.
Since 2010, Rochester has sent 10 people to the FBI National Academy. Cincinnati has sent five.
Buffalo has not sent a single officer in at least 16 years.
The Buffalo Police Department refused to provide attendance numbers, dates, and descriptions of any training provided by the department’s in-house academy or external organizations, like the FBI, for the past six years. The department only provided a list of courses that police officers apparently completed at the Erie Community College police academy, but did not provide any corresponding dates nor attendance information.
Beaty said that the Buffalo Police Department is focusing on training related to community relations.
“Because communities around the nation are different, our training efforts will not mirror other agencies. As issues continue to evolve nationally involving police community relations, most of our training will be focused in that area.”
This year officers will receive a one hour “community policing update” and three hours of cultural diversity training.
The Police Oversight Committee, re-established by the Common Council in 2014, has asked, but not insisted on improved training. The committee did provide $60,000 to the department in 2014 that was intended for training. But Niagara Common Council Member David Rivera, a retired detective conceded he does not know how the money was spent.
“We didn’t ask for a budget outline,” he said.
“We don’t run the Buffalo Police Department,” he said. “We’re only an oversight.”
Daniela Porat is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York.