BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen said he is “very familiar” with stories from constituents about racial bias from Buffalo’s traffic enforcement.
“I’ve experienced some things personally,” said the Black council president.
“Anybody who thinks there aren’t any disparities is fooling themselves,” Pridgen said. “I want to be clear: They are fooling themselves.”
In 2020, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown promoted the stop receipt program as part of his police reform package. He said police officers were expected to hand out “stop receipts” or “stop tickets” to anyone who is pulled over, but not ticketed for an infraction.
The purpose, he said, was to explain to people why they got stopped and to document police interactions with the public. But a key part of the program was that officers were expected to record the race of every person given a stop receipt.
In March, a News 4 Investigates analysis of the data beginning June 24, 2020, through Feb. 14, 2022, found that officers failed to record the race on the stop receipts in about 25% of the time.
News 4 Investigates worked with Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab to analyze the stop receipt data to determine if there are disparities in who gets stopped. We analyzed the data three different ways and found disparities each time.
We analyzed the data in the following ways:
- When receipts in which the race is unknown were removed, Black people were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police in Buffalo than white people, despite making up a smaller share of the city’s total population. (Buffalo is 39% white and 35.6% Black.)
- When racial demographic percentages were used to assign race to the receipts that were marked unknown, Black people were two times more likely to get stopped than whites.
- When all the receipts where the race is unknown were instead assumed to be for whites, the disparity remains, with Black people 1.2 times more likely to be stopped than whites.
The findings concerned some in the community.
Miles Gresham, a policy fellow at the Partnership for the Public Good, said that the data clearly showed that Black people are getting stopped more often than white people despite making up less of the city’s total population.
“And that’s a problem,” said Gresham. He said he had analyzed about six months of stop-receipt data when the program launched and found similar racial disparities that our analysis discovered.
“It’s racism,” Gresham said. “It’s easier to pull over a Black person. I don’t know for whatever reason maybe they think that we commit crimes more often or maybe it’s just inherent bias?”
The Buffalo Police Department has components of racial bias training but lacks a stand-alone racial bias training program “to ensure that their officers are treating everyone equally,” said Anjana Malhotra, senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
“And when they fail to do that, when they bury their heads in the sand and ignore a problem … they are liable for not properly training or supervising their police force for respecting the civil rights, and the right to equal protection of the Black and minority residents of their city,” Malhotra said.
The Buffalo Police Department has disputed News 4 Investigates’ stop-receipt analysis.
“When you look at the overall traffic stop receipt data, and the disparity, that’s looking at the overall number, but what you have to look at is a deeper dive into that, and when you look at district by district those numbers change,” said Joseph Gramaglia, the new police commissioner.
“You also have to look at all the individual traffic stop receipt data, I think that’s also assuming that every single person that got a traffic stop receipt or that was pulled over is a city resident who lives in that district.”
The News 4 Investigates analysis with Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab did consider traffic patterns and how not all people stopped are city residents or live in those specific police districts.
That’s why Russell Weaver, the Cornell data expert, added a statement on the data map published on WIVB.com with the original story in March.
Weaver believes the disparities are even worse than what got reported because the City of Buffalo has the most racially diverse demographic profile in the Buffalo-Niagara region, and, “As such, non-resident drivers are less likely to be persons of color than resident drivers, on average.”
“This observation implies that any racial disparities observed when comparing traffic stop demographics to City of Buffalo demographics could be more extreme than they appear in this data portal.” Weaver said.
Gramaglia told News 4 Investigates that they are not getting any complaints of racial bias in traffic enforcement.
“If someone feels that they were stopped for the wrong reason then they should contact our Internal Affairs Bureau,” Gramaglia said. “If they don’t want to contact the Buffalo Police Department Internal Affairs, then by all means they can contact the Attorney General’s Office. There’s a myriad of opportunities for someone to file a complaint. To date, I am not aware of any complaints that have come in related to the topic that you’re bringing up.”
While motorists may not be flooding the police department with such complaints, the city is being sued in federal court on allegations that its traffic enforcement targeted minority neighborhoods largely through checkpoints.
In June 2018, attorneys for Black Love Resists in the Rust filed the federal civil lawsuit on behalf of at least nine minority residents that police targeted because of their skin color. The lawsuit alleges that the police department also gave multiple tickets for driving infractions, such as a ticket for each tinted window on a vehicle, to Black motorists.
Gramaglia declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Gresham said he wants to give Gramaglia a chance to work on this issue.
“But generally, when you say that police engage in racist practices, denial is the order of the day,” Gresham said. “Whether you’re talking about the Buffalo Police Department, the Rochester Police Department, the New York City Police Department, denial is common. I hope still that we can get past denial and get to acceptance and resolution and action. That’s going to require buy-in from all parties.”
Pridgen agreed that more work needs to be done for police to be effective in the communities they are tasked to protect and whose assistance they need to solve crimes.
“I don’t think we always have to run away from an issue and pretend there’s not a problem,” Pridgen said. “Again, I don’t know what the police commissioner said, I didn’t see his response; I’m talking about what I feel. If the data shows one thing, there’s no sense trying to recolor the data. Let’s look at the data and say how do we do better in ensuring that only one side of town is receiving the majority of tickets.”