Mayoral election ad featuring cops sparks controversy in Buffalo

Buffalo's police commissioner said he had OK'd the ad, so long as officers were off duty and not wearing their uniforms

By Deidre Williams
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO — Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood said Wednesday that he permitted his police officers to appear in the TV ad for Mayor Byron Brown's re-election that prompted an ethics complaint from a supporter of Democratic mayoral nominee India Walton.

The ad features 18 police officers who, according to Brown's campaign, volunteered to appear in the ad. In the ad, the officers — some wearing T-shirts identifying them as police — said they would be among 100 officers who would be laid off if Walton wins the mayoral election and she follows through with her plan to cut $7.5 million from the city law enforcement budget.

Lockwood said he gave permission to the Police Benevolent Association for the officers' involvement but also indicated what could not be part of the ad.

"I told the union president they could," Lockwood said, as long as the officers were off-duty and they didn't wear uniforms or use police equipment.

From what he could see in the ad, the officers in the ad were not wearing official uniforms, Lockwood said.

"I only saw the commercial only once," Lockwood told The Buffalo News. "From what I'm seeing they're like polo shirts. Our patrol force doesn't wear polo shirts. I can't see what was in the back, and what I saw up front was more like polo shirts, more like shirts you probably seen on police officers engaged in off-duty activities, and those are not official police uniforms."

Buffalo attorney Stephanie A. Adams, however, said the officers "are dressed using what appears to be Class B uniforms. Is it official? I don't know. They appear to be.

"I don't care what they're wearing," she added.

"They're identified as real Buffalo police officers, which violates their own manual," Adams told The News.

Adams, with support from 138 others, sent a complaint to the city's Board of Ethics, contending the ad violates a host of rules and regulations by portraying police officers in support of a political candidate.

"Everything about the ad has the appearance of ethics violation, possible violation of the department's own manual and possible violation of state and federal law," she said.

The Police Department's manual includes a section that says "employees shall not use the influence of their office or position for political purpose," she said.

"I'm concerned about the ethics violation even if there was no legal violation," she said. "If the police commissioner approved this, and the commissioner's boss is Byron Brown, then they approved a violation of their own manual, which calls into question the ethics and compliance of the whole thing," Adams said.

During the Common Council's Police Oversight Committee meeting Wednesday, Lockwood said the guidelines he said he followed are under the purview of the federal Hatch Act.

"It's the Hatch law," he said. "You can't be involved in politics if you're on duty or use any department equipment."

"Anything outside of police work without the permission of the commissioner, you can't wear those," Lockwood said of the official police uniforms, which, as far as he could tell, were not worn in the ad.

"All of us will lose our jobs," the officers say in unison in the ad, before two officers close the spot.

"Our job is to keep Buffalo safe," says one.

"We can't do that with India Walton as mayor," adds another.

Walton's campaign immediately cried foul when the ad first appeared, saying her plan to "right-size" the police budget would not require police layoffs.

(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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