BUFFALO — Buffalo will replace its police Emergency Response Team with a new “Public Protection Unit” following the suspension and arrest of two ERT members seen on video shoving a 75-year-old protester who fell and cracked his head, Mayor Byron Brown said Wednesday.
The city also will halt arrests for low-level, non-violent offenses like marijuana possession and make it easier for the public to view police body camera video under measures Brown introduced as “a critical first step” in making Buffalo more inclusive and equitable amid nationwide calls for police accountability.
“We will shift policing in Buffalo away from enforcement and to a restorative model that promotes stronger community bonds, civic engagement and an end to young black men, black people, being caught in a cycle of crime and incarceration by consciously limiting their negative engagement with police,” Brown said at a news conference.
The changes follow days of negotiations with community leaders and activists, said Brown, whose police force has faced increased scrutiny since a widely viewed video showed officers in riot gear shoving a white-haired protester near the conclusion of a demonstration over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last week.
“It’s amazing to see that we have everybody at the table,” said New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis, who along with Buffalo Bills cornerback Josh Norman joined Brown at the news conference. The two are part of a group of NFL players working with the league on social justice issues.
“There is a unique opportunity for unity. What is happening here is not happening around the country,” Davis said.
The injured protester, Martin Gugino, remained hospitalized Wednesday.
The officers in the video, now charged with felonies, were part of a crowd control unit that was effectively disbanded with the resignation of its nearly 60 other members in solidarity. The Public Protection Unit that replaces it will work with any group that wants to peacefully protest, Brown said.
The former ERT members did not resign from the police department altogether. The incident has inflamed tensions between the city and police union, which Brown said has been “a barrier to reform” by, for example, pushing for costly overtime for police training.
An email seeking comment was sent to the Police Benevolent Association.
Under an executive order, police will issue appearance tickets for non-violent crimes that do not involve property damage, weapons or large drug sales, the mayor said.
The department also will strengthen de-escalation and implicit bias training and convene a commission to examine police procedures.