Rafael “Pito” Rivera was running from police and posed no threat to officers when one of them shot him several times in the back, the attorney representing Rivera’s family has told Investigative Post.
Steve Cohen made his claim of a “bad shoot” based on a video taken from a surveillance camera that captured the shooting at 454 Plymouth Ave., on the city’s lower West Side. Cohen said he viewed the video early Friday evening with the family.
“There could be no interpretation of that video that [concludes] Mr. Rivera was pointing a gun at the police when he was shot,” Cohen said. “There could be no interpretation of that video [that concludes] at the time Pito was shot and killed that he posed any danger to the police.”
Rivera, 32, was shot about 3:15 a.m. Wednesday during an interaction with Buffalo police. The fatal shots were fired by Elnur Karadzhaev, who has been on the force two years. He has been placed on paid administrative leave. The Erie County District Attorney’s office is investigating.
“Pito was running away from police, who were running behind him,” Cohen said. “They shot him in the back once. He fell and got up. They shot him in the back a second time. He fell down dead.”
Investigative Post has not been able to independently verify Cohen’s account, as no parties possessing videos of the incident have made them public.
But a source who said they have viewed a video of the incident said Cohen’s description of events is largely accurate. The source, who spoke on the condition they were not identified, said police shot Rivera in the back while he was attempting to flee. Rivera did not appear to pose a threat to police, the source said.
Calls to two police spokesmen were not immediately returned Friday night.
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Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia has previously said the officer was justified in firing shots after police responded to a report of a man with a gun near Plymouth and Massachusetts avenues. Police said they encountered a man with a gun and gave chase.
“The suspect refused multiple requests by the officer to put the gun down,” Gramaglia said. “At that time, the officer discharged his service weapon to stop the immediate threat the suspect posed.”
Cohen said his review of the surveillance tape is at odds with the police account.
“It is disturbing that Deputy Commissioner Gramaglia supports this kind of conduct as a righteous shoot,” Cohen said. “If the Buffalo police consider this a righteous shoot, then no one is safe.”
Cohen, in an interview with Investigative Post on Thursday, before viewing the video, said he suspected police are engaging in a coverup.
He said police have been uncooperative, refusing to allow the Rivera family to view the body or provide basic information about the fatal encounter. Police, he said, are typically quick to share information in the case of justifiable shootings.
“When the police refuse to interact with the family, refuse to interact with the family’s attorney, refuse to answer questions, refuse to to show evidence, that suggests a coverup,” Cohen said.
“The family was not allowed to view the body,” he said. Cohen characterized the refusal as “very unusual.”
The shooting occurred in the parking lot of the former School 77, converted into affordable housing and offices for PUSH Buffalo and other community organizations. WGRZ reported that the shooting has sparked intense anger in the neighborhood, and PUSH Buffalo issued a strongly worded statement in the wake of Rivera’s death.
“As a social justice organization with deep roots in the West Side community, we believe this kind of police violence is wholly unwarranted and in this instance has resulted in a loss of life that will have incalculable consequences for families, neighbors, community members and relations with local law enforcement,” PUSH Buffalo said.
Three men of color have died after being stopped by police since last year: Wardell “Meech” Davis, in February 2017; Jose Hernandez-Rossy, in May of last year; and now Rivera.
Investigative Post has previously reported on a number of problems related to the police department’s use of force, including:
- A lack of de-escalation and firearms training.
- Little accountability when police are accused of misconduct.
- Unconstitutional tactics used by the now-disbanded Strike Force.