Police shootings rare, but not always reported

Tracking Buffalo Police Use Of Force

BUFFALO, N.Y. - On March 29, a police chase ended in a calamity near the intersection of Seneca and Babcock. After evading Buffalo Police officers for a few miles, a fleeing suspect had crashed into multiple vehicles just before 4 p.m, causing a wreckage that even included a school bus.

Through an interview and a press release, the Buffalo Police Department explained that the chain of events began that afternoon on Weiss Street, where the narcotics unit was executing a search warrant. The suspect, police said, pulled up to the scene and at one point struck a narcotics detective and an unmarked vehicle. Thus began the chase and eventually the crash. 

Buffalo Police omitted a major fact, however.

They did not tell the public that an officer had fired a shot at the suspect's vehicle at some point before the chase. 

That fact was only revealed through an internal Firearms Use report, obtained by 2 On Your Side under the state's Freedom of Information Law. According to that document, an officer "did fire one shot 00 buckshot at vehicle that had just struck narcotics detective." The suspect, 21-year-old Antonio Gutierrez, pleaded guilty to vehicular assault five months later. 

The shooting, as it was described by police, appeared justified. The suspect had injured a member of the department and seemed to pose a direct threat to the safety of officers. However, as part of an ongoing effort to track every single shot fired by Buffalo Police officers since 2011, 2 On Your Side has now filed a total of four open records requests with the department -- known in New York state as a FOIL request -- because we believe it is in the public's interest to know when police officers choose to use potentially deadly force. 

The fourth and final request made by 2 On Your Side, seeking all firearms discharges between July 2016 and July 2017, was initially denied by the Buffalo Police Department. A legal challenge and appeal by 2 On Your Side, however, was successful, and the city's corporation counsel directed the department to turn the records over. According to those records, the March incident before the police chase was the only recorded shooting by a Buffalo Police officer during that time frame, other than the fatal shooting of Jose Hernandez-Rossy in Black Rock. 

The Hernandez-Rossy documents were not included in the FOIL data. That's because 2 On Your Side's request for all documents related to the Hernandez-Rossy case -- the first fatal officer-involved shooting in Buffalo in five years -- was rejected by both the Buffalo Police Department and the State Attorney General's Office. Both agencies cited the ongoing investigation in their denial of access to the records. An appeal by 2 On Your Side was unsuccessful. 

The Buffalo Police Department often alerts the public when an officer fires a shot, and it obviously tells the public when a suspect like Hernandez-Rossy is struck by police gunfire.

But other incidents, like that shot fired at a suspect in March, would never have been brought to light if not for our request of internal documents. Our previous investigation in Nov. 2016 also revealed new incidents that had never been previously reported by the department.

Although the department publishes raw use-of-force and police shooting data on their Internal Affairs website, it does not publish specific or detailed information about officer-involved shootings. Many departments, including Baltimore, Indianapolis and Philadelphia, make every officer-involved shooting incident public. The Minneapolis Police Department just announced on Tuesday it had created a new open data portal for the public to see. 

In an interview last month, Lt. Jeff Rinaldo said he'd be open to the idea of publishing more detailed information. However, he cautioned that it would be easy to skew the numbers.

Buffalo Police, according to 2 On Your Side's full review, have only fired at 21 suspects or vehicles since 2011. Firing a shot is extremely rare, and most officers will retire without ever having done so in the line of duty.

Either way, Rinaldo said there is an internal system used by Buffalo Police to track not only police shootings, but also more minor uses of physical force.

"The information is gathered, it's used, it's looked at, and it allows us to basically keep tabs on use of force," Rinaldo said, "and come up with new technologies and training programs."

Five years ago, Buffalo Police instituted a computerized program named "Blue Team," which allows officers to fill out an online form any time they use force. That could include anything from wrestling with a suspect to using deadly force with a weapon. The program charts and tracks the incidents, and then, the Internal Affairs Division discusses the data with the police commissioner on a quarterly basis.

"They go over that force, looking at what's being used, what's the most common," Rinaldo said. "And it alerts Internal Affairs to any trends that are occuring."

It is very difficult to compare use-of-force or police shooting data to other departments. This year, the FBI launched a pilot program to collect that data. 

We've also published a tally of every officer-involved shooting, based on the reports we've received through the Freedom of Information Law requests.  
 

© 2017 WGRZ-TV


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