Bad Apples in Buffalo

Fifty-seven officers were willing to take a stand to defend misconduct rather than oppose it.

Police officers standing in a line
Drew Angerer / Getty

After an elderly protester in Buffalo, New York, was pushed to the ground by police officers and left to lie there as blood pooled beneath his head, the head of the local police union, John Evans, said his colleagues were disgusted.

Disgusted, that is, that two of the officers seen in the video were suspended without pay.

“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Evans told the Buffalo NBC affiliate WGRZ, offering a classic Nuremberg defense. The officers remain employed; they have simply resigned from the riot team that was deployed to clear the city’s Niagara Square of residents protesting police abuse.

The Buffalo Emergency Response Team was formed in the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. For many Americans, the heavy-handed police response and the riots and unrest that followed raised questions about the wisdom of outfitting police departments with military equipment. But police leadership in Buffalo took the protests as a sign that they needed a specialized team to deal with “mass demonstrations.”

“There’s a very fine line between policing and honoring people’s civil rights,” the team’s commander told WIVB at the time. “I just want compliance, that’s the name of the game.” Everything about this incident feels like it was authored by a hack fiction writer pushing a metaphor too far, but yes: A riot squad created to subdue Black Lives Matter protesters is now most famous for pushing an unarmed, elderly white man to the ground.

Initially, the Buffalo police insisted that the man “tripped and fell” during “a skirmish involving protesters,” a description implying that the officers had been physically threatened by the elderly protester and had acted to protect themselves. In the absence of a video proving that story false, it seems likely they would have stuck to that story. The willingness of officers to behave this way on camera and then lie about it raises discomfiting questions about what such officers are willing to do, or mislead the public about, when no one is recording.

Some of the recent protests across the United States have been marred by looting, rioting, and violence, but the video from Buffalo was just the latest example of police officers responding to anti-police-brutality protests with violence against individuals who pose no apparent threat. Since the nationwide demonstrations began, videos showing police beating unarmed protesters, driving police cars into crowds, firing at journalists, and teargassing peaceful protesters with no provocation have spread across social media. Elected officials and police spokespeople have insisted that the catalyzing event for the protests, the release of a nine-minute video showing the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin digging his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck, was an isolated incident. But the response of many police departments across the country vindicates the protesters’ complaints: In many cases, protesters against excessive force have themselves become the targets of excessive force.

The reaction of Buffalo’s police union helps explain why such abuses remain a stubborn problem. One core purpose of unions is to advocate for their members and protect their jobs as best they can. But in the context of policing, that often means protecting officers who abuse their authority. As Reason’s Peter Suderman writes, “In case after case, police unions have defended deadly misdeeds committed by law enforcement,” even when officers violate department policies in a way that leads to someone’s death.

That not only reinforces a culture in which officers are wary of reporting abuse; it ensures that even if they do report it, risking the disapproval and anger of their colleagues, the person they report is unlikely to be punished.

Police officers themselves know this. According to a 2000 survey published by the National Institute of Justice, 67 percent of police officers believe that “an officer who reports another officer’s misconduct is likely to be given the cold shoulder by his or her fellow officers.” Fifty-two percent believe that “it is not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers.” Just 39 percent agreed with the statement that “police officers always report serious criminal violations involving abuse of authority by fellow officers.” A more recent 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of police officers believed most officers in their department would not report a colleague whom they caught drunk driving. And this is the view of the police themselves.

Yet there is also some reason for hope. The NIJ survey also reveals that more than 80 percent of the officers surveyed “reported that they do not accept the ‘code of silence’” as an “essential part of the mutual trust necessary to good policing.” But “even though officers do not believe in protecting wrongdoers,” the report notes, “they often do not turn them in.”

The survey suggests that police officers know misconduct is occurring, they know it is wrong, and yet they are strongly deterred from doing anything about it. Rather than rewarding police officers who act within the law and removing those who do not, the current system does the opposite, rewarding police who engage in misconduct and silencing those who do not. And ultimately, in order to rationalize this kind of behavior to themselves, police officers have to convince themselves that the people they or their colleagues are hurting deserve it.

This is not a system that can be overcome by good intentions. Still, the data suggest that officers might act differently if the system were not so effective at protecting cops who cross the line. But it also indicates that until police officers can be held accountable for violating the rights of the people they are paid to protect, and police officers themselves are rewarded rather than punished for identifying colleagues who abuse their authority, the problem cannot be resolved.

The fact that 57 officers were willing to take a stand to defend misconduct rather than to oppose it shows how far we are from a system that does that.