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In lawsuit, Buffalo police officers allege racist remarks by a captain

The Buffalo News

Nov 22, 2022 Updated Dec 7, 2022

Buffalo police Capt. Amber Beyer, who heads up the police department's Behavioral Health Team, speaks during a press conference Sept. 14, 2020, in Buffalo City Hall. Beyer was accused of making racist comments at work by two Buffalo police officers in a lawsuit filed Nov. 21, 2022 against the city, the Buffalo Police Department and Beyer.

Buffalo News file photo

Inside Buffalo police headquarters a few months ago, a small team of officers, both Black and white, found themselves in a discussion about race.

The boss, Capt. Amber Beyer, who is white, then launched into a series of inflammatory statements, according to a new lawsuit against the city.

Among them: Black men cheat on their wives more than white men; the Black officers she knows are unfaithful; she would be suspicious upon seeing a Black man in her neighborhood; Black people commit more violent crimes than white people; and Black officers should try hard to understand why white people are racist.

Beyer’s comments are the focus of an internal investigation, Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. Beyer scoffed at the probe, the court papers say, and

"When an allegation was brought to me, I ordered an immediate internal affairs investigation and that began right away," Gramaglia said in an interview with The News. "We will take it, as we have been, very seriously."

“Discriminatory language by any employee is not tolerated in this administration,” Mayor Byron Brown said. He didn’t say the retired lieutenant was wrong. But he said department officials would deal seriously with such a complaint.

The new federal complaint, alleging discrimination, follows Mayor Byron Brown’s insistence days ago that his City Hall team does not tolerate discriminatory talk by employees.

“There will be disciplinary consequences for any employee who is using discriminatory language of any type whatsoever,” Brown said last week as he tried to tamp down concerns about racial animus among his police officers.

The mayor spoke in the wake of revelations about a retired police officer’s pretrial testimony in another federal lawsuit. Retired Lt. Thomas Whelan, who was on the force from 1997-2018, testified that Buffalo police commonly used a racial slur against Black people.

“Listen, I was a cop for 22 years,” Whelan said in a sworn deposition. “The only answer to that is yes. Obviously, I heard people say things they shouldn't have been saying.”

He added later: “Have I ever said it? Yes, I have, obviously. I'm a human being.”

Brown portrayed Whelan’s claims as Whelan’s own problem. “What was in one individual's heart and head is in no way the culture of the Buffalo Police Department,” the mayor told The Buffalo News.

Gramaglia last week joined the mayor in condemning Whelan’s comments and said that since June 40% of the department has been trained in implicit bias.

"I certainly would never tolerate or stand for any type of racist, derogatory language – anything of that nature," Gramaglia said Tuesday. "But we have to get through an investigation and get to the facts to the best that we can determine what happened."

"I still feel the same way, that this is not indicative of a larger problem," he said.

The new lawsuit, however, says the police department condoned discriminatory treatment within its ranks.

A spokesman for Brown said the mayor was not immediately available to comment. Beyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Officers Brandon Hawkins and Katelynn Bolden and mental health clinician Erica Seymour, who are Black, describes this scene:

On May 2, Beyer was shown a viral video of an incident involving police in another jurisdiction. Two white officers pulled over a Black officer who was wearing his uniform but driving an unmarked car. The video was circulating as an example of racial profiling.

“There is a problem with systemic racism at every level, it appears, with the Buffalo Police Department,” said Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice

Beyer supervises the Buffalo Police Department’s behavioral health team, which assists the force in responding to calls involving people in a mental crisis. The team, one of the mayor’s police reforms, came together a month after an officer shot a bat-wielding, homeless man with a history of mental illness in 2020.

In the team’s office inside 68 Court St., Beyer responded to the video by saying she could see “both sides” of the incident, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by Investigative Post. The federal complaint said Bolden and the officer who showed Beyer the video, Jason Wagstaff, challenged her, saying the video showed the white officers acted with racist intent.

Beyer then “ranted for approximately 20 minutes,” the lawsuit says, about how Black officers are unfaithful toward their wives, and it would be logical for a white person to hold racist views if robbed by a Black person. The complaint paraphrases her as saying Black officers do not get post-traumatic stress disorder from patrolling Black neighborhoods, like white officers do, because Black officers are used to violence.

Word of Beyer’s comments spread to other officers in the following days and one of them – the lawsuit does not identify who – complained to the Internal Affairs Division. When she learned of the Internal Affairs probe, Beyer “screamed about the ongoing investigation”; called Bolden and Wagstaff “liars” and “gossips”; and continued to complain even after a lieutenant urged her not to talk openly about an ongoing probe, the lawsuit says.

Gramaglia said Beyer and the two officers accusing her remain on active duty. Those officers, though, no longer report to Beyer.

Of the three plaintiffs, only Bolden had been in the room during Beyer’s talk on May 2, the federal complaint indicates. But the papers say Hawkins sensed anger from Beyer as he tried to avoid her in the ensuing weeks. When she confronted him about why, the lawsuit quotes him as saying: “I do not feel comfortable around you. I think what you said is racist.”

Said Beyer: “You weren’t even there,” the lawsuit says.

Hawkins was present Sept. 29 when Beyer, according to the court document, read aloud a Facebook post from a resident who was mentally ill and whom the behavioral team was to check on. In the post, the resident freely used a racial slur that targets Black people, and Beyer yelled out the word as she read the post to members of her team, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says Bolden objected, and “Beyer then said with sarcasm, ‘I’m just reading the post.’

Seymour, the mental health clinician who works for an outside contractor, “left the room in tears” and has since resigned, the lawsuit says.

Lawyers are seeking tens of millions in damages for her and for Hawkins, who, according to the document, was forced onto sick leave by the emotional distress but has been ordered back to work, and for Bolden, who is “extremely distressed” but is out of work for an unrelated physical injury.

Gramaglia said he anticipates the internal investigation will be completed "very soon."

"We're almost there," he said.

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