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I-Team: Buffalo Police’s Internal Affairs system debated

Officers not faulted in many complaints
Posted at 2:26 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 19:39:02-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Police reform laws recently passed in Albany mean for the first time, the public is getting a look at how departments like Buffalo police their own officers.

In light of high-profile incidents involving Lt. Michael Delong and this week’s release by the BPD of records showing which officers have the most excessive force complaints filed against them, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team analyzed 18 months of police Internal Affairs data posted on the city website.

The analysis shows that when Internal Affairs opens a case on officers in Buffalo, 75 percent of the time the officers are not faulted, while 25 percent of the time they are faulted by internal investigators. Click here to see the full data.

But police and those who study them are in disagreement over what those findings mean.

“An officer could have nothing on their record…[that] doesn't make them a great cop. An officer could have numerous things on their record…[that] doesn't make them a bad cop,” said Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo.

“It’s a national problem,” said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. “I think the stats you’re quoting suggest Buffalo’s very much a part of that problem. But it’s a national debacle.”

In 2016, Moran wrote a paper published in the Buffalo Law Review titled, “Ending the Internal Affairs Farce.”

“I absolutely recognize it’s a strong word, but I don’t think this is just a mildly flawed system,” Moran said. “I think it’s a system designed to protect officers.”

In Buffalo Internal Affairs cases over the last 18 months:

  • 55 percent of the time, officers were “exonerated,” meaning the “alleged facts were justified.”
  • 26 percent of the time the allegations was “sustained,” or proven.
  • 19 percent of cases were “not sustained,” meaning “insufficient evidence exists to clearly prove the allegation.”
  • 1 percent of complaints were “unfounded,” meaning the “alleged facts did not occur or the officer was not involved.”

Many allegations against Delong and other officers whose records have been made public in recent days were not sustained.

“To me, it means, ‘We did some minimal amount of research and decided it was too hard to tell. So we’re going to say it’s not sustained,’” Moran said.

“It's not how I look at it at all,” Rinaldo said, adding that “not sustained” does not mean an officer is cleared of wrongdoing.

“It may give the appearance that the officers are exonerated in those instances,” he said. “But it's not an exoneration. It's the inability to prove whether or not that alleged conduct occurred.”

That often happens, he said, when citizens do not want to follow up on their original complaints. Even in those cases, the allegations remain in an officer’s file, which Rinaldo said frustrates officers.

“Who would want to have a closed case in their record for conduct they didn't do?,” he asked. “I dare say nobody.”

John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said Internal Affairs “thoroughly” investigates all complaints, “and we have the attorney bills to prove it.”

Police reform advocates say the low percentage of sustained allegations show the system of police investigating themselves simply doesn’t work.

But Evans disputed the veracity of many of the complaints that come in against his officers.

“You can take literally half of those and throw them right in the garbage,” Evans said. “It’s procedural now for criminals to get locked up, come over, make a complaint and go on. I would attribute literally half of them to just total BS.”