Long Story Short: To protect and serve
In praise of body cameras
Sheriff’s deputies aren’t known for their civility, particularly, though the stereotypical sunglass-wearing man with a badge, a gun, and an attitude might actually be a Hollywood trope (I personally encountered a decent sheriff recently). But as long as there are officers of the law, there will be matters in dispute between police and the public, and the police are virtually always given the benefit of the doubt.
However, a recent Erie County case illustrates the importance of body cameras in protecting the public from bad cops.
A year ago, twenty-five-year-old University at Buffalo student Nicholas Belsito was arrested during a Bills tailgate party. The charges: disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and criminal mischief. Supposedly, he had engaged in "violent, tumultuous and threatening behavior." That’s what Deputies Kenneth Achtyl and James W. Flowers wrote in their statements after the confrontation anyway.
Maybe they forgot about the camera
Turns out, Flowers was wearing a trial body camera that Sheriff Timothy Howard was testing on his patrol unit. Howard figured cameras could be used to expose false or exaggerated police brutality claims. But the video from the arrest that day did anything but support the officers’ version of events.
Achtyl and Flowers had just arrested Belsito’s buddy for throwing a bottle. Belsito, who is not from Buffalo, wanted to know where they would be taking his friend, who was in the back of the patrol car. He knocked on the car’s window, and began apologetically:
“I’m sorry,” he says, "I'm just wondering where you guys are going, so I'm going to meet my friend there." This would seem to be a perfectly reasonable request.
“Who’s your friend?” Achtyl asks, which would seem to be a perfectly dumb question.
“The kid in the back,” Belsito answers, in what must have been bewilderment at the obviousness of the answer.
"OK, well, you want to go to jail with him?" Achtyl asks, which is another perfectly stupid question.
"No, I ..."
"Then beat it."
Belsito persists, asking deferentially, where his friend will be going.
Achtyl tells him he’s going to jail, and again orders Belsito to beat it. In fact, Achtyl says “beat it” a total of four times, which, as cliché cop dialogue goes, sounds like a 1970s TV show. What Belsito wanted to know is where the jail was, and it took a couple times for him to understand that 10 Delaware is an address.
“Okay, thank you,” says Belsito, but as he walks away, he adds something like “Do your fucking job; this is bullshit,” an understandable expression of frustration, but maybe not the wisest thing to utter in the direction of a sheriff who likes to say beat it.
Achtyl jumped out of the car as Flowers—apparently sensing that his partner was about to do something stupid—is heard saying "Nah, ah, ah." The video shows Achtyl arresting Belsito, who is not resisting. Several times, an angry Achtyl uses the same language that got Belsito into trouble.
The body camera video, and one taken by another witness, tell a completely different story from the sheriffs’ reports. Belsito is hit in the head and body by Achtyl's baton, while doing little to defend himself. He suffers a broken nose and blood is running down the side of his face.
Minutes later, Flowers’ camera catches Achtyl telling a patently false version of events to a sheriff's medic at New Era Field. He flippantly refers to Belsito as “Mister Bloody Face.”
A Court ruling
In 2015, a Manhattan court of appeals unanimously ruled that cursing at police is protected speech under the First Amendment and is not justification for arrest. Police officers should know this. The district attorney looked at the video and immediately dismissed the case against Belsito, who’s now suing Erie county, the sheriff’s office, and the officers involved for wrongful arrest.
District Attorney John Flynn Jr. is currently determining if Achtyl and Flowers knowingly falsified their report—which the body camera pretty much confirms—and whether the officers should face charges. Sheriff Howard isn’t commenting on the matter, or on the status of body cameras, for which he has not sought funding to move ahead with widespread implementation.
Whether the video constitutes grounds for charges against the officers, is a matter for the courts. But what is not in doubt is that the behavior of Achtyl is inappropriate for a sheriff, or even a ninth-grader. So, I’m with Belsito. This is bullshit.
Reclaiming the word “beat”
For years, social activists have called for a different kind of policing in Buffalo, one in which officers are assigned to a specific neighborhood beat, where they form community bonds, and help prevent crime. When Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood was appointed earlier this year, he announced support for the concept, saying he wants “all of his police officers to be community police officers.” Lockwood discontinued the controversial Strike Force unit (see What’s up? Sept. 18 LSS) and traffic checkpoints, which disproportionately impact communities of color.'
This past summer, Lockwood created a Neighborhood Engagement Team (NET), comprising two lieutenants and ten officers on Buffalo’s East Side, to test out the new approach. Police went door-to-door introducing themselves. They became involved in community events, engaging young people in sports and recreational activities, and hosting a job fair. They identified neighborhood problems through community interaction and addressed them in constructive ways. Nonviolent crimes, such as blatant drug dealing, were dealt with promptly, and with a lighter touch than usual. Smalltime drug dealers were arrested, then directed back to school or job training, rather than jail.
The goal is to build trust. Community leaders and police agree it seems to be working. There’s early evidence that certain crimes are down where the NET officers worked. A more positive attitude has emerged toward police, especially among young people. Open street drug dealing has declined and neighborhoods seem calmer. NET officers received greater community cooperation solving crimes.
One summer won’t completely reverse deep-seated distrust, nor will it solve every community problem. Tangible results can only be determined over an extended period. But you don’t need statistical data to grasp the ethics of community policing. Integrity may not be measurable, but it impacts such intangibles as a community’s wellbeing, and who possesses moral authority.
We’d like to hold Commissioner Lockwood to his word. Add NETs across the city. And while you’re at it, implement body cameras that never turn off, so we can witness positive interactions among police and the community, as the police department weeds out officers who abuse their positions.
It goes both ways. As communities learn to trust police again, police may gain new respect for the community. Citizens might once again perceive police as people who really do protect and serve.
John Flickner has a prescription for medical cannabis to alleviate chronic pain caused by a skydiving accident he suffered fifty years ago. The seventy-eight-year-old man now uses a wheel chair to get around. Cannabis is a good alternative to potentially addictive opioids for relaxing the muscle spasms that make breathing difficult for him. It comes in oil form, in a cartridge that fits into an odorless battery-powered vaporizer. It’s legal in New York. Flickner carries a medical marijuana card saying so.
Nevertheless, Flickner was recently evicted from Niagara Towers, a federally subsidized Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) facility owned by LHP Capital. On November 29, an eviction notice was taped to his door, and five days later a sheriff locked him out of his apartment, with only his winter coat, wheelchair, and cannabis vaporizer. He’s still looking for a long-term living arrangement, while staying in a series of temporary dwellings.
Here’s the rub
Federal law doesn’t require HUD facilities to evict people using medical cannabis. The law gives building managers discretion in cases where current residents use the prescribed medication. In a Buffalo News article, a representative of LHP had this to say: “Our policy is that we have a drugfree community. Our policies and procedures do say ‘no drugs whatsoever.’”
“No drugs whatsoever.” So that would include Aspirin, and antacids? No? How about prescription opioid pain relievers that lead to 19,000 deaths per year in the US? That’s okay, you say? Alcohol? Sure. But not prescription cannabis. Even though the federal government says you may allow this medication, which you classify it as a drug, while all other prescribed and over-the-counter drugs are…what, exactly?
We smell hypocrisy.
We Need a Little Christmas
So, here’s an idea for a Christmas-themed day out; three places of interest located within minutes of each other. You can visit them in any order on almost any day through the holidays (but check websites for hours):
Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens (2655 South Park Avenue)
It’s like a vacation to the tropics in a giant glass terrarium. For the holidays, the Botanical Gardens is featuring its annual Poinsettia & Railway Exhibit, with plenty of red, but also a surprising array of other poinsettia colors among the 1,000-plus on display (there are more than a hundred cultivated varieties). The whole family will enjoy the model garden railway display, and other seasonal decorations.
Woyshner's Christmas Shoppe (880 Ridge Road)
With over 15,000 square feet of space, jampacked with every conceivable holiday decoration and knickknack, you’ll get your fill of Christmas cheer. From ever-observant elves on shelfs to Buffalo-themed ornaments, Woyshner’s has it all. Decorations range from kitschy to classy, with some stylish and exquisitely-crafted. The store is known for its upside-down Christmas tree, among dozens of other decorated trees with global themes. It’s not hyperbole to call this place dazzling.
Our Lady of Victory National Shrine & Basilica (767 Ridge Road)
If you’ve never visited this architectural gem (completed in 1925), what are you waiting for? Marvel at the majesty of its white marble edifice and distinctive copper dome. Then go inside by all means, and enjoy the lavishly decorated interior, with its many statues, muraled ceilings and dome, exquisite stained glass, and numerous altars. You’ll think you’re in Europe! But this Basilica was constructed using modern methods, with an interior framework of Bethlehem Steel. That’s right, steel from Bethlehem; you gotta love it. There are guided tours 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. except on Christmas, and self-guided tours on the website.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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