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How a Troubled Police Department Is Shaping Buffalo’s Mayoral Race

Citing years of police brutality and racial disparities in arrests, activists are pushing candidates to embrace reforms ahead of next week’s Democratic primaries.

Police cars in Buffalo, New York.Buffalo Police Department/Facebook

Last summer, the U.S. erupted in protests against police brutality in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The ferment was especially acute in Buffalo, New York, one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Local police made international news for attacking protesters, including then 75-year-old Martin Gugino, who spent a month in the hospital with a brain injury and a fractured skull. Another protester, Myles Carter, had his hands in the air and was being interviewed by a local news crew when police tackled him from behind.

Though the demonstrations eventually dwindled, Buffalo organizers continued to advocate for racial justice, and police accountability issues have taken on a new urgency—and become a critical factor in local races that will be decided next week.

“The uprisings across the country created the space for critical conversations around what public safety grounded in racial justice could actually look like,” Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, said in a statement emailed to The Appeal: Political Report. This year, the group made an unusual endorsement in Buffalo’s mayoral race that reflects how activism is reshaping the city’s political landscape. Instead of backing four-term incumbent Byron Brown, 62, who has won the party’s support in every mayoral race since he first ran in 2005, the WFP endorsed India Walton, a 38-year-old registered nurse, community organizer, and former executive director of a community land trust who wants to overhaul the city’s approach to policing. According to Nnaemeka, Walton is “fighting for the changes we urgently need.”

Brown and Walton will face off in a June 22 Democratic primary that’s likely to determine who becomes mayor, since there’s no Republican contender in the November general election. Another candidate, Le’Candice Durham, will also be on the ballot in June, but her campaign hasn’t attracted the level of support Brown and Walton have received.

The problems that have made police oversight a salient issue in this race are longstanding. Around 43 percent of Buffalo residents are white (and not Latinx), 37 percent are Black, and 12 percent are Latinx, but the Buffalo Police Department is over two-thirds white. In the last several years, police brutality, fatal shootings, the death of a young man who had an asthma attack while in police custody, and documented racial disparities in arrests have angered many residents. 

The official response to these episodes has further eroded trust between the police and the communities they serve. In 2017, Buffalo’s then police commissioner said an officer had been shot in the head; investigators later found he had been struck by an airbag that deployed during a scuffle with a motorist who his partner then shot and killed. Officials routinely seek to minimize or justify police brutality against protesters. The Buffalo Police Department initially said Gugino “tripped & fell.” Video footage showed that officers pushed him. (Gugino believes Brown has given the police “free rein” to brutalize civilians. He supports Walton for mayor.) After the police tackled Carter, he was charged with obstruction of governmental administration and disorderly conduct. Those charges were later dismissed because they were “unsupported by the information provided by law enforcement.” Carter is now running for Erie County sheriff.

Brown is also quick to castigate protesters. He called Carter an “agitator” and denounced a 20-year-old Black man who threw a flaming object into City Hall during a protest, calling him an “idiot” and vowing to prosecute him “to the full extent of the law.” In contrast, when a tenant called the police on Brown’s 30-year-old son for allegedly breaking windows in a residential building, he called that a mental health episode.” No one pressed charges.

Brown, who has taken campaign contributions from top police officials, has said he believes the majority of Buffalo police officers are “doing the right thing.” He has also criticized the police union and vowed to push for reforms. But local activists say he has failed to meet their most crucial demands.

Brown met with a coalition of activist groups and announced reforms last summer that included more police training, more widespread use of de-escalation techniques, and restricted use of no-knock warrants. But other reforms he announced—such as ordering police to issue appearance tickets for most nonviolent crimes, ending arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and banning chokeholds—merely reiterated state law as well as orders he had already issued, according to Investigative Post, a local news outlet. Harper Bishop, deputy director of movement building at the community organization PUSH Buffalo, said those reforms did not “move the needle nearly enough” and should already have been done.

Tanvier Peart, the just recovery coordinator at Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank, called many of the city’s reforms “very disappointing.” Peart, whose father is a retired police officer, believes Buffalo has been slow to make the kind of progress other cities have made. “We always hear, ‘Well, you know, this is just a starting point, and we’ll get there eventually,’” she said, adding that people are suffering now, and “We can no longer wait for tomorrow to do what we need to do today.”

A similar pattern played out when Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered localities to adopt police reform agendas by April 1 or risk losing state funding. Brown released his plan several days before the deadline—a move the state attorney general’s office said “likely hindered the opportunity for meaningful public comment.” Local organizers were angry. Their most substantive demands—an independent civilian review board, reallocation of funds from the police to social services, and meaningful consequences for officers who brutalize civilians—have not been met. The mayor did not agree to be interviewed for this story, nor did he respond to a series of questions sent to his campaign.

These issues are partly what drove Walton to enter the mayor’s race. She told The Appeal that she is running because Brown is “doing nothing to advance the quality of life for poor and brown people and hold police accountable.”

Adam Bojak, a tenants’ rights lawyer and Walton campaign volunteer, said Walton would take a different approach to the police department’s budget, which now accounts for over one-quarter of city spending and has grown at three times the rate of other city services during Brown’s tenure, largely because of rising health insurance and pension costs for current and retired officers.

“One of the things that India has been about since day one is putting money into other programs and social services that could help people avoid having interactions with the police,” Bojak said.

Walton’s platform includes having mental health professionals rather than police respond to people experiencing mental health crises, a reform she believes rank-and-file officers would also support. “The problem is that we have operated under such austerity, we’ve cut mental health and community services, so now every societal ill is falling into the laps of police officers, and that’s not what they’re paid to do,” she said.

Walton has a track record of fighting for police accountability. Buffalo has three separate police oversight bodies, one of which, the Police Advisory Board, she helped establish. The board has made substantive recommendations but lacks power. There is also a Buffalo Common Council Police Oversight Committee that rarely meets and does not investigate misconduct or exercise its subpoena power. Then there’s a city charter-mandated Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations, a group whose members are appointed by Brown that seems to lack focus and organization. (Three weeks after requesting the date and time of the commission’s next meeting, The Political Report was invited to participate in one that was already underway.)

Community members want a truly independent civilian review board with teeth. “We know that any time the police ‘police’ themselves, you don’t get justice or transparency,” said Peart. In April, state Attorney General Letitia James’s office sent Brown a letter authorizing Buffalo to establish such a board, preferably one with a substantial budget, qualified professional staff, and subpoena and disciplinary power over officers.

Asked if the mayor would act to create a board in light of James’s letter, the Brown campaign did not respond. Walton, who has consistently fought for such a board, said James’s letter was encouraging and a board would be “a large step forward for Buffalo to begin healing our community.” She has also vowed if elected to thoroughly review the city’s ability to discipline and fire bad police officers. Brown has said he does not have the legal authority to fire bad officers, even those charged with felonies.

As in many other cities, Buffalo’s homicide rate has risen over the last year, and Walton questions the effectiveness of the city’s violence interruption program. She favors programs like Advance Peace, which she says offers superior “resources and mentorship.” It’s not enough, she said, to talk about ending violence without investing in youth. “There’s no year-round youth employment, there’s no after-school program, there’s no community centers open,” she said. “In order for us to stop the problem of gang violence and violent crime in Buffalo, we have to give people something to live for.”

Brown’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on specific programs and policies. 

Neither did Durham, the other candidate in the race. Her website says she would balance the police budget, in part by cutting overtime pay, and bring back DARE, an anti-drug campaign popular in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s that focused on K-12 students and has been proven ineffective.

Brown has called the Buffalo police union a “barrier to reform” but did not respond to a question about his office’s negotiations with the union. Asked how she would negotiate with a union that opposes reform, Walton cited her past experience as a nurse and union member, and criticized Brown for not being a more hands-on negotiator. “It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship,” she said. “It just has to be a more up-front and transparent process, and the mayor has to be involved.”

The race will effectively be decided on June 22. If Brown wins the primary, Walton won’t be able to challenge him as a Working Families Party candidate in November because the Erie County Board of Elections denied her the party line in the general election after she missed a deadline for accepting the WFP’s nomination. Erie County Democratic Committee chairperson Jeremy Zellner is also a commissioner on the county Board of Elections, which many see as a conflict of interest. His committee picks sides in primaries—Brown’s, in this case—and his role on the board allows him to keep candidates he opposes off the ballot based on technicalities. Walton told The Appeal that Zellner accepted her paperwork, confirmed that she had filed all the necessary forms, then informed her several days later that she had missed a deadline he had never mentioned. “He knew that whole time that that one sheet of paper with three sentences on it was not turned in,” she said incredulously. (Zellner said Walton was notified of her acceptance obligations by mail.)

But Walton believes she can win in June, and said there’s too much at stake to uphold the status quo. “It’s not a matter of ‘more police.’ It’s a matter of more resources, more hope, more care in our community as a way to reduce crime and thus to reduce the need for more police,” she said. “That’s why we have to reimagine what safety looks like in our community and have honest conversations and stop making excuses. Because people are dying.”

Editor’s note: The author’s parents hosted a fundraising event for India Walton in May.