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Opinion: Bodycam video shows police professionalism, decency under pressure

Buffalo police officers pleaded again and again with a knife-wielding man, video shows

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Buffalo Police Department

The following article was originally printed by The Buffalo News editorial board.

The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Forget, for the moment, that they are cops. Focus, instead, on what they said, how they said it, the actions they took. What viewers see in video released Wednesday is a group of professionals, trying hard to help a man in crisis and responding with anguish when, through no fault of their own, their efforts failed.

Add in their uniforms and, for those who need it, it’s a reminder that police work can be dangerous and that its ranks include brave men and women whose goal, in the defining phrase, is to protect and serve.

For some, it may be an eye-opener: These were not gun-happy bullies, but caring professionals patiently working to de-escalate a dangerous situation that put many lives at risk.

The officers backed up repeatedly, creating time and space for Dominique Thomas to comply. But Thomas, believed to be in the grip of a mental health crisis, would not put down his knife, despite the repeated orders and pleas of police who responded to a call at his apartment on Hertel Avenue. The cops were trying to help but when Thomas ran toward them, they fired.

Thomas fell, badly wounded, prompting Officer Phillip Edward to scream at him, “Why? Why, man? What the (expletive) ... Damn! Why?” The emotional toll of these confrontations on police usually goes unnoticed. In this case, the world is witness.

Edwards and Officer Michael Ramos fired the shots. They were placed on paid administrative leave, a routine practice. Thomas was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where he was listed in serious condition.

It could have been much worse. Officers could have been injured or killed. Thomas could have died. Bystanders could have been harmed. But there are also ways the episode could have been avoided or rendered less dangerous. Public officials, state and local, need to review the confrontation and make improvements. They can start with a desperate lack of mental health services.

Less than a week before Monday’s crisis, Thomas had called police, asking to be taken to ECMC for psychiatric treatment. It’s a tragically familiar story. People in crisis — or, more often, their relatives — reach out for crucial help they can’t find. Police become the de facto therapists, taking on obligations that shouldn’t be theirs.

The problem traces to the “deinstitutionalization” policies of the 1970s and ‘80s. Its premise was that mental health hospitals should be reserved for those who truly need that level of care, while those who could benefit from community-based services would get appropriate, less costly treatment in a less restrictive setting.

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It was a good idea, but New York State pursued only the cost-saving first part of that equation. Community care has lagged. All of mental health care needs to improve if New Yorkers are to see fewer avoidable crises such as Monday’s.

For now, though, those duties belong to police and they need different weapons to carry it out. The Buffalo Police Department has begun arming officers with Tasers, which deliver a nonlethal electrical jolt, but the officers who responded Tuesday weren’t among them. Their only option was firearms.

If those officers had Tasers, Thomas might have been safely restrained and receiving the care he needs. But the weapons weren’t available. The issue is cost. It needs to be resolved.

The question of removing police from mental health calls also arises. Generally, it’s better for trained mental health professionals to deal with crisis situations. That won’t always be possible, and likely wasn’t in this case. Thomas was armed with a knife, after all.

Still, the mere presence of uniformed police can elevate the turmoil of someone already in crisis. Buffalo does have a behavioral health team that works with city police, but only on day shifts, Monday through Friday.

In a dangerous situation such as Monday’s, that team might not have been safely deployed, but the question remains: Did the presence of the uniformed officers inadvertently complicate their own outstanding efforts?

Clearly, police needed to respond in this situation. Nonetheless, the event should cause city officials to evaluate how best to relieve police of duty as mental health counselors.

A final thought: If anyone, including police, wasn’t already sold on the value of body cameras, those hesitations went out the window with this video. While the cameras can help identify cops who shouldn’t be wearing a badge, they are at least as likely to document the professionalism and fundamental decency of officers who are in the job for the right reasons.

That’s who was on the scene Monday.

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(c)2022 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)