BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — How is it that an officer of the Buffalo Police Department could be suspended two days for excessive use of force against a suspect, and suspended 45 working days for improperly tagging people's parking tickets?
It's what the man who was on the receiving end of that excessive force wants to know, and it's information we're only aware of because of the repeal of Section 50-a of New York's Civil Right's Law in 2020.
The officer at the center of these suspensions is Milton Jeffries, who retired with pension from the BPD in 2012 after 23 years of service.
In documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, 7 Eyewitness News learned that Jeffries had been investigated 48 times for a variety of incidents throughout his tenure. According to the BPD's own data, Jeffries had more incidents than the top 10 percent of investigated officers still active today.
Of those investigations, according to his disciplinary card, Jeffries was suspended without pay eight times, which pulled him off the streets for around 60 working days. Twenty-two of the investigations were found to be unsustained or exonerated.
Two of those suspensions were the result of back-to-back investigations in 2006.
Documents show that in April 2006, the BPD received a complaint about how Jeffries handled the arrest of Tosheen Lumpkins, who was the suspect in a domestic violence call on Fennimore Avenue. The department's Internal Affairs team found that "while Lumpkins was handcuffed and in the back seat of a police vehicle, Officer Jeffries sprayed Lumpkins with a chemical agent projector spray and/or struck Lumpkins on his head with his flashlight."
Lumpkins needed to be taken to Erie County Medical Center to receive stitches for injuries he sustained before being taken to the Erie County Holding Center.
Although Jeffries originally denied pepper spraying Lumpkins or striking him with a flashlight, he ultimately pleaded guilty at an informal hearing in September 2006.
That guilty plea landed him two days off the job without pay.
While investigators were putting the pieces of that case together, they were simultaneously investigating another case involving Jeffries and hundreds of parking tickets.
Jeffries, who declined to speak with 7 Eyewitness News, was accused of wrongly tagging more than 200 vehicles between February 2005 and April 2006, according to documents from the investigation. Owners of those cars were charged an additional $40 on their parking summons for a mini-tow that never happened. At the time, The Buffalo News widely reported this snafu, which put such a stain on the City and police department that the BPD administration wanted Jeffries fired, according to Buffalo Police Department Captain Jeff Rinaldo.
"In speaking to Commissioner [Byron] Lockwood in that case, he’s familiar with it, I believe the city, or I should say the department’s stance was a termination," said Rinaldo.
In 2006, Lockwood was the BPD's Deputy Commissioner of Operations, and was at the table when suspensions were decided upon for Jeffries' excessive use of force case and the parking ticket case. In the latter, the punishment was actually suspension for 30 "calendar days" and 28 "working days," which ultimately amounts to 45 days off the job.
When 7 Eyewitness News told Lumpkins, who now lives in Connecticut, about these two suspensions, Lumpkins was disturbed that Jeffries received two days suspension for the incident in the back of the police cruiser, and 45 days for a paperwork error.
"How does that happen?" Lumpkins told 7 Eyewitness News in a phone conversation.
According to Rinaldo, it has everything to do with the disciplinary process, which remains the same as it was in 2006.
“There’s decades of grievances and lawsuits and arbitrations and [union] contracts that start laying on top of one another that brought us to the process that we have today," said Rinaldo.
When a BPD officer is accused of bad behavior, big or small, the Internal Affairs department will open an investigation. In cases that involve civilians, investigators will try to interview witnesses, complainants, and involved officers to try to get a clear picture of what happened. Rinaldo says those interviews can be unreliable or contradictory, and create a "he-said-she-said scenario." Compare that to a case like the parking ticket snafu, where investigators had a much easier time putting the case together because they were able to follow a paper trail of evidence that made the case stronger to prosecute.
Once the investigation is complete, the officer will often end up in an "informal hearing" that includes department brass, union heads, and their lawyers. The commissioner will propose a certain discipline to settle the case, which the officer can take or refuse. If the officer refuses it, the case gets elevated to arbitration - a lengthy and expensive process that leaves the disciplinary decision in the hands of an arbitrator.
"The system allows people to stay on [the force] who should not stay on," one high ranking law enforcement source told 7 Eyewitness News.
Rinaldo says he does not believe the system is broken, but concedes the system can keep unwanted officers on the streets.
"I think there are some circumstances where officers, in the past at least, have stayed on that maybe should not have," said Rinaldo.
Although the arbitrator has to be agreed upon by the department and union, the law enforcement source says arbitrators will often lean in favor of the officer because unions will then spread the word to their counterparts across the country if there's an arbitrator that they like.
"Arbitrators are financially motivated by unions," said the source, who would only agree to speak on the condition of anonymity.
The head of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association disagrees.
"We're very nervous when we go into an arbitration hearing because the outcome could be termination," said PBA President John Evans.
Rinaldo said he is hopeful that recent police reforms like body cameras and the issuance of stop receipts will eliminate what he calls the "gray area" within the disciplinary process.
"It should be easier going forward for a more clear judgment to be made in terms of whether an officer’s conduct did or did not violate some rule or violation," said Rinaldo.
But Evans said he is worried that these reforms, and the repeal of 50-a, are preventing officers from being able to do their jobs. He argues that even the most minor infractions will follow officers for their entire careers, and as a result, he's now taking inconsequential cases to full arbitration.
"We can't just settle cases anymore and just say yeah we'll take the reprimand, let's just move on. You can't do it," said Evans. "Now we need to bring everything to a hearing, where all the evidence is put forth. It's going to cost the unions a lot more money down the road."
So while both the union and department claim to have new strategies for future disciplinary cases, both sides are still working within the same disciplinary process that they had in 2006, in which Officer Jeffries was suspended two working days for excessive use of force, and 45 working days for parking tickets.