The recent series of public meetings held by members of Niagara County's Law Enforcement Reform Committee offered residents across the county an opportunity to speak up and speak out about their concerns where policing and criminal justice in the community is concerned. 

The final of three committee meetings held this week in Niagara Falls highlighted what has been, and sadly continues to be, one of the most glaring issues facing the community as a whole and that's the longstanding lack of minority representation in key positions, including those inside the Niagara County Courthouse, the Niagara County Sheriff's Office and multiple local law enforcement agencies. 

Upon hearing the concern from residents in attendance, Acting Sheriff Mike Filicetti acknowledged the need for greater diversity while suggesting that the sheriff's office is putting a lot of effort into encouraging more minorities to apply for available positions, which is a good thing. 

However, as was noted by Tomasina Cook, a criminal justice instructor at Erie County Community College who attended the most recent committee meeting, recent efforts aimed at growing the minority ranks locally have continued to produce disappointing results. Filicetti confirmed Cook's numbers after she noted that there are only four minority corrections officers in the county jail and none in the road patrol division. 

“That’s very concerning to me because it’s the same number of (minorities) as when I worked there," said Cook, who previously worked in the mid-'90s with victim advocates at the sheriff’s office and in the Falls Police Department. 

Filicetti said his office’s makeup “is not reflective of the community” but expressed confidence in his plans to improve minority recruitment. He noted that the county's recruitment program begins at the high school level and is designed to assist minority candidates with meeting the qualifications for open positions. 

In theory, the program seems sound enough.

In practice, when there are so few minorities represented in the sheriff's office, clearly more work needs to be done. 

The reform committee was put together at the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which made a priority earlier this year to push local community and governmental leaders to take a closer look at how their local law enforcement agencies operate and whether they are in keeping with the needs of all the residents they represent. 

The reform committee will begin its own deliberations on Monday and is expected to complete its work by April 1.

Law enforcement agencies and components of the criminal justice system in any community should be diverse and representative of residents of all backgrounds, minorities included.

For far too long now, Niagara County's Sheriff's Office, local police departments and criminal court systems have been packed with mostly white and often male representatives. 

We can and must do more to promote diversity in the system and whatever final recommendations put forth by Niagara County's Law Enforcement Reform Committee should clearly outline this deficiency as a priority in need of change.

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