Cops charged; mayor and activists negotiate
Updated: 8:59 p.m.
Two days after their push of a demonstrator drew nationwide attention — and condemnation — two Buffalo police officers were arraigned in Buffalo City Court on charges of second degree assault. A large crowd of fellow law enforcement officers made a show of support, congregating in front of the downtown courthouse and, in some instances, attempting to obscure the view of videographers shooting the scene.
Officers Robert McCabe, 32, and Aaron Torgalski, 39, members of the police department’s Emergency Response Team until all 57 members resigned from the assignment Friday, were charged in a virtual arraignment and released on their own recognizance. They plead not guilty to class D felony charges that are punishable by up to seven years in prison. Torgalski and McCabe are scheduled to return to court July 20.
“I’m not apologizing for charging them with a felony,” said John Flynn, Erie County District Attorney. “The facts are there, the charge is there and that’s what they’re faced with.”
The charge rises to a felony due to a law on New York’s books which protect people above 65 from elder abuse. It’s the same law that actually results in an assault on a police officer, firefighter or EMT to be a felony, as well.
In another major development, Mayor Byron Brown and leaders from nine activist groups met for four hours today to discuss police and policy reforms.
“It was an extremely productive discussion,” the coalition of activists said in a statement.
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The officers are charged in the injury Thursday evening of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old demonstrator who had approached them in front of City Hall shortly after an 8 p.m. curfew took effect.
A video shot by WBFO, the local NPR station, showed two officers pushing Gugino, who fell and slammed his head on the sidewalk. He immediately began to bleed from his right ear. Gugino remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
Torgalski and McCabe were suspended that evening without pay. That prompted the union representing the city’s 700-member police force to help organize the mass resignation from the Emergency Response Team, trained to deal with protests and other large crowds.
John Evans, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said in an email to his membership the officers were “simply executing orders” and that the suspensions was an attempt to “fuck over these guys.”
Huge applause from the crowd of law enforcement and first responders as the two officers who at the center of the viral video Thursday exit the county courthouse. @WGRZ pic.twitter.com/rcD0O9YSUp
— Nate Benson (@natebenson) June 6, 2020
More than 200 law enforcement officers gathered in front of Buffalo City Court building on Delaware Avenue this morning to express support for McCabe and Torgalski and protest the actions of police department brass and the mayor’s office. The majority were Buffalo cops, but there were representatives from suburban departments and Niagara Frontier Transit Authority police on hand, as well.
Some police came with umbrellas that they opened in front of TV camera crews in an effort to stop them from recording events.
Fire engines with lights flashing blocked traffic between Niagara Square and Eagle Street, allowing the crowd of officers to spill into the street.
A small contingent of demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk across the street from City Court, on the fringe of the crowd of officers, holding signs expressing support for Gugino and demanding an end to police brutality.
One protester, later in the day, told Investigative Post that the police show of support of the two officers, including the resignations from the Emergency Response Team, shows there are widespread problems within the department.
“They said it was two bad apples, but because 57 cops resigned with them, to support them, it’s obvious it’s the whole tree that’s bad,” said Shaymaa Aakil.
Today’s charges mark the sixth time Flynn has prosecuted police officers since taking office in 2016. In explaining today’s charges at a press conference, he said: “This is the last thing I want to do – to prosecute a teammate. We’re all on the same team here. We’re all working to do justice to keep our community safe.”
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Meanwhile, activists pressed their case for police and policy reforms with the mayor, and presumably other members of his administration. Activists discussed a list of 13 demands, which include creation of an independent police oversight body, reallocation of some police funds for community services, and the termination of officers with a history of brutality.
In a statement to Investigative Post, the coalition said it “will continue to be in close contact with the mayor’s office to achieve meaningful policy solutions as quickly as possible.”
Organizations represented in the discussions include Black Love Resists in the Rust, the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, Citizen Action, the Fair Fines + Fees Coalition, Partnership for the Public Good, WNY Peace Center, VOICE-Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo and the WNY Law Center.
A look at some of the signs out today pic.twitter.com/8Fm6pH3p59
— Ali Ingersoll (@Ali_IngNews) June 6, 2020
Ali Ingersoll documented the evening’s protest on Twitter. Check it out.
Demonstrations started Saturday with a daytime protest outside a police precinct on East Ferry Street and a gathering at Martin Luther King Park, then a larger evening demonstration that started at Niagara Square in front of City Hall. Three speakers addressed a crowd Investigative Post estimated at 2,000. The two-hour protest included a lot of chanting and dancing.
The protest then moved to the nearby Erie County Holding Center, where two speakers read the names of some 30 inmates who have died in recent years under the management of Sheriff Tim Howard.
As they did Friday, police kept a distance. The rally remained peaceful throughout and ended prior to the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, although a small portion of demonstrators remained afterwards at Niagara Square.
A march from Niagara Square to Delaware Park is planned for noon Sunday.
The grievances of protesters focus on long-simmering complaints of police brutality and the failure of Brown and the Common Council to address them. The Council’s Police Oversight Committee meets only a couple of times a year and does not address issues of substance. Elected officials have largely ignored a citizen advisory panel and the city’s human rights commission is largely inactive.
Meanwhile, four men of color have died since 2017 as the result of interactions with police. Investigative Post has reported in recent years about a lack of training, the failure of the department to police itself, and abuses by a street crime unit that has since been disbanded.
Geoff Kelly contributed to this story.