Criminal Justice Day

By Steve Jagord, The Pride Center of WNY

Leadership Buffalo Rising Leaders learned about various facets of the local police and court systems and community organizations working to assist victims of violent crimes during its Criminal and Social Justice Day Session on Wednesday, April 12.

The day began with speakers at Hodgson Russ LLC, located in Louis Sullivan’s historic Guaranty Building at the corner of Church and Pearl streets. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn spoke about the scope and breadth of cases his office sees each year. Then he turned the conversation toward the disproportionate arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates of African Americans.

“In order to right a wrong, you have to realize there is a problem in the first place,” Flynn said.

Flynn spoke about different interventions the district attorney’s office could use beside prison to help with reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. These included requesting law enforcement assisted diversion programs (the first local one is being piloted in Cheektowaga this year) and post-arrest diversion programs that include treatment. A third option he mentioned was a judge sentencing a treatment program instead of jail time.

“We can all work together to solve the social justice problems in this country,” Flynn said. “And we have to reverse the course we have been on the past 50 years.”

Buffalo Police Department Deputy Commissioner Kim Beatty spoke after Flynn. Beatty began her career in law enforcement after years of working with community activism groups and neighborhood block clubs. She is currently chief of E-District, which has one of the state’s highest violent crime rates in addition to thousands of students at multiple college campuses.

In order to address some of the issues facing E-District, she began instituting Community Police Officer trainings to encourage officers to be more outgoing and engaging with people in the streets.

“As a CPO, you have to look at the problems that exist in your district while at the same time realize that its OK to smile at people,” Beatty said.

Beatty then spoke about providing opportunities for young women in the department, even for those who in the past may have seen the inside of a police vehicle for the wrong reasons.

“Sometimes you have to arrest people to change their lives,” Beatty said of one young woman who thanked her for arresting her years before she would eventually become an intern for the deputy commissioner. “I was glad [the arrest] provided a positive change in her life.”

The E-District chief went on to speak about the murder of a 13-year-old girl that affected her greatly and how that event relates to her ability to look beyond a person’s past.

“We see so much on a daily basis that we need our families to understand we just need to sit down for a minute when we get home,” she said. “Sometimes you just need to shut your office door, sit down and cry.

“That’s why I give young ladies another chance.”

Following the speakers at Hodgson Russ, the Rising Leaders class headed a few blocks north to Erie County Family Court to learn about what happens daily in one of the city’s busiest buildings. Deputy Chief Clerk Lisa Virgilio gave a brief overview of what kinds of cases are heard at the court – most involve custody of children or juvenile defendants. The court processes about 40,000 cases annually and the building houses more than 350,000 files on record.

RL members were split into four smaller groups so they could attend one of the hearings taking place, one of which was interrupted by a physical altercation and had to be postponed. Those in courtrooms that completed their hearing were able to ask the judge questions about the case afterward.

After the Family Court visit, the class walked over to Buffalo Police Headquarters on Franklin Street for lunch. There, Julie Palmer gave an overview of People Against the Trafficking of Humans (PATH), the nonprofit she oversees as executive director.

In addition to advocacy against trafficking rings, services for victims include reestablishing life skills, job skills, various therapies, counseling, support groups and spiritual care.

Palmer also discussed stereotypes associated with human trafficking, local trafficking rings and how social media is misused to lure victims.

“Just be sure you know who you’re associated with online,” Palmer said. “If you don’t know them, delete them.”

A panel discussion followed lunch in the ceremonial courtroom in Old County Hall. Panelists were: reformed individual and public speaker Tuhran Gethers, City Court Judge Susan Eagan, Buffalo Police Officer Tommy Champion and Federal Public Defender Jayme Feldman. The focus of the discussion was on racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the societal hurdles that minorities face when engaging with it. Some of those hurdles included a lack of inspiring opportunities for youth and education for adults that leads to jobs.

Champion said that many children look up to people involved in criminal activity because of the visual cues being sent by seeing a drug dealer wearing trendy new clothes and driving an expensive vehicle.

“If all you see is these people being successful, you’re going to want to do it too,” he said.

Feldman said there needs to be more focus on rehabilitating offenders instead of incarcerating them, noting that people commit crimes first because they can’t support themselves in the employment sector.

“What we need is realistic and inspiring opportunities for youth and education for adults that leads to job,” she said.

All of the panelists agreed that education was the most effective tool in breaking the cycle of younger generations repeating the mistakes of older ones.

The day ended with a tour at the Family Justice Center of Erie County at Main and Court streets. Executive Director Mary Murphy began her presentation sharing personal stories and reflections about two female victims of domestic violence that led her to establish the FJC.

Murphy explained that more than 14,000 domestic violence emergency calls are made annually in Erie County and that most victims return to their abuser.

“It takes a victim an average of seven or eights times retuning to a dangerous situation before they realize their angel is a monster,” she said.

The center has assisted more than 10,000 people, including Peg Symons, now in her seventh year volunteering with FJC. She spoke after Murphy about her experience leaving an abusive relationship and likened some of their stories to her own.

“The people coming through the doors here are the ones who have driven with the car heat on full blast on a hot summer day because they have chills from fear,” she said.

RL members toured FJC’s facilities then enjoyed happy hour at Local Kitchen & Bar on Chippewa Street before departing for the day.

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