Generations of Black and brown people have experienced police violence in their communities, but the death of George Floyd ignited the powder keg of America’s racial reckoning.
Protesters took to the streets demanding justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and the other Black lives extinguished by police. These protests occurred in more than 2,000 American cities, including Buffalo. Why? If you lived in my neighborhood you would know the answer.
You would also understand why I believe that the Right to Know Law – a bill requiring more police accountability that is under consideration by the Buffalo Common Council – is critically necessary to defuse the powder keg.
I am a Puerto Rican criminal defense attorney working in the City of Buffalo. I live in the same neighborhood as many of my clients. As a 15-year East Side resident, I can tell you there is a divide between the Buffalo Police Department and my community.
For example, when the BPD comes through my neighborhood to execute a warrant, they often do so with an excessive show of force. My husband and 4-year-old daughter were faced with two tanks, multiple unmarked pickup trucks and men armed with long guns at 6 a.m. as they attempted to leave our house to go to work and school.
They unintentionally stood witness to the execution of a warrant on a neighbor’s home. My husband quickly shuffled our little girl back back into our home. I grabbed my phone and feigned bravery as I held it up to record the police from my porch.
We record the police to protect each other, hoping the police will not hurt our neighbors if cameras roll.
I have had Black and brown clients tell me, “I don’t know why they stopped me” too many times, and I understood exactly what they were talking about.
From 2012-2018, the BPD Strike Force operated with the impunity of vigilantes with badges. They focused their energy on Buffalo’s segregated Black and brown communities. One night, while picking my husband up from work in our 1989 Dodge Omni, we were stopped by a swarm of police cruisers encircling our car. I remember being afraid for my husband’s safety because he is Black. We didn’t know why they were stopping us, but knew better than to ask.
We showed officers our IDs, and carefully got his pay stub from the glove box. There were officers on each side of the vehicle peering into our car with flashlights as they interrogated us simultaneously for merely existing in our own neighborhood. They vanished minutes later with no ticket or explanation, the only thing that remained behind was that feeling of fear. When the Strike Force was finally disbanded, there was no apology for, or even acknowledgment of, what our community endured.
There is a clear divide that exists between our community and our police. We cannot turn a blind eye to this divide any longer because of the unrest it creates and the danger it poses to all of us. The tension can be defused and the relationships can be healed. Together we can restore the public’s trust with reform and transparency. The Right to Know Law provides both.
Samantha I.V. White, a criminal defense attorney, is a director of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York and co-chair of its Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.