Police assault injures protester

Updated: Friday, 3:40 a.m.

Important events have unfolded since we posted Thursday evening about a peaceful resolution between police and protesters the night before in front of City Hall.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, a video shot by a reporter with WBFO captured two Buffalo police officers shoving a 75-year-old protester to the ground. The man struck his head with an audible thud on the sidewalk in front of City Hall and immediately began bleeding. He was transferred to Erie County Medical Center, where he is listed in serious but stable condition.

Here’s a report from our partners at WGRZ.

A statement issued by Mayor Bryon Brown’s press secretary initially claimed the victim “tripped and fell.” Brown, in a subsequent statement announcing the suspension of the two officers, referred to the protests as an “illegal demonstration beyond the curfew.”

Detective John Losi is among the officers in the video; he urges one of the officers who struck the protester to keep moving. Losi was featured in the Investigative Post story below that posted earlier Thursday. This story is developing.


Original story published before the assault

The story Wednesday ended a different way on the fifth day protestors gathered in Niagara Square.

Police and protestors knelt together in the minutes leading up to the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. Some then shook hands, even hugged, before everyone went on their way as the sun began setting in downtown Buffalo.

They did it “in solidarity,” said Detective John Losi, the officer who led the effort.

Investigative Post was present Wednesday when Losi approached protestors. Losi, an eight-year veteran based out of B District on Main Street, led a group of five officers. He negotiated with protestors, asking them to peacefully head on their way when the curfew went into effect. 

One person in the crowd raised concerns about the constitutional rights of demonstrators, another asked if that was all Losi wanted to say.

“Is that how you’re going to start the conversation?” the protestor asked. 

Losi at one point responded: “If you guys are good with it, these officers and I will take a knee with you guys five minutes to 8 and then if you want to leave after that.”

The crowd agreed, and applauded Losi. Police and protectors knelt momentarily and then exchanged handshakes and a few hugs. The crowd dispersed without incident.

Two police sources, speaking on background, said the approach was Losi’s idea. The detective communicated to police leadership that he wanted to approach the group — without his helmet or riot gear — and determine if they were interested in cooperating and abiding by the curfew. 

The detective did not tell higher-ups his plan to kneel.

“It was unbeknownst to us,” one source told Investigative Post. “I’m very proud it ended as peacefully as it did, and hope that this will be a turning point.”  

“I think they finally realized we’re not out here to cause any problems,” Drew Gerster, a protestor from Lackawanna, told Investigative Post. “In order to have a conversation, we need to have peace on both sides. I think we’re finally starting to get that.”

The night before, Gerster did not abide by the curfew. He felt the police’s response — arriving in Niagara Square clad in riot gear 10 minutes before the curfew — was unwarranted. 

“Police brutality is getting out of control,” he said at the time. 

Though he wasn’t arrested, he stayed downtown past 8 p.m. assisting a 15-year-old stranded in the city. She could not get to her bus stop in Niagara Square due to police occupying the area. 

Gerster wishes police negotiated with protesters before Wednesday. Of Losi’s actions last night, he said, “I did respect that a lot.”

Losi negotiated with demonstrators again Thursday evening after police arrested a handful of them for blocking traffic in front of City Hall. A crowd of more than 100 marched out of Niagara Square to Johnson Park off South Elmwood Avenue, then dispersed before the 8 p.m. curfew.

The tactics employed by Losi on Wednesday and Thursday is referred to as the “negotiated management model.” 

The model allows for police to talk with protestors before the escalation of tensions to reduce the likelihood of the use of force, according to research from St. Louis University School of Law

The approach gained some traction after several presidential commissions noted failures in excessive force models used during large-scale rallies. 

Research from a national commission created in 1968 found “the police handling of protesters was often unrestrained and only increased the potential for violence — in the immediate situation and for the future.”

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The pendulum swung back towards more aggressive policing tactics  after contentious protests in Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999, followed by the terrosist attacked of Sep. 11, 2001. Among the changes: a militarization of police forces and a return to the use of billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. 

The St. Louis University law researchers found the current aggressive approaches are based on a failure by police to distinguish between peaceful and antagonistic protestors and use of tactics that result in a “common fate to all crowd members.” Oftentimes, this results in a self-fulfilling prophecy where protestors who were thought to be unruly become even more rebellious, researchers found.  

“As a result, these approaches often make things worse, not better,” researchers wrote.

Buffalo police officials said they don’t want to provoke protesters.

“Every officer wants to go home at the end of the night,” said Capt. Jeffrey Rinaldo, department spokesman. “Nobody wants to become involved in a confrontation.”

Protestors play a big role in how situations play out, he said. 

“The crowd really determines the outcome and response.” 

Protestors have rallied since Saturday against what they contend is police brutality. A rally Saturday that grew contentious at times attracted some 1,300 protestors and hundreds of police officers to Niagara Square. A protest Monday outside a police precinct on Bailey Avenue ended after a truck struck a group of Buffalo police officers and state troopers, injuring three of them. It remains unclear if the incident was related to the protest.


Read more of our reporting on police misconduct