Former Bills great recalls beating by police

Booker Edgerson said cops assaulted him during a traffic stop in 1987. He said another black football player, Cookie Gilchrist, was beaten by police in separate incident in the '60s.

On a cold winter night in 1987, Booker Edgerson was driving down Bailey Avenue, just a few blocks from where he then lived on Buffalo’s East Side. Suddenly, a flash in his rearview mirror: a police car signaling him to pull over. So he pulled into a parking lot — a “mistake,” he later called it, “because it’s dark up in there.” Within a few minutes, he was on the ground, surrounded by several cops, nightsticks raised.

“They beat the shit out of me,” he said.

Bills team photo featuring Booker Edgerson (front left #24)

It was a familiar experience for a black man in America. But the fact that this particular black man was being beaten by Buffalo cops was somewhat unusual. Booker Edgerson was a former Buffalo Bill, a famous one from the team’s mid-’60s championship era, and an administrator at the local community college.

The Buffalo Police Department’s long record of racial animus is well known to the city’s black citizens. But only with the current Black Lives Matter protests have most white Buffalonians become aware of it.

Edgerson is part of that belated awakening, because the story of his beating entered the public record only last month. It appeared in an article by longtime Buffalo sportswriter Tim Graham in the June 6 edition of The Athletic, about the BPD’s newfound infamy during the protests — particularly its knockdown assault of a 75-year-old demonstrator in Niagara Square, fracturing his skull.

“I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it,” Edgerson said in the article of his brush with police brutality in the erstwhile City of Good Neighbors. Somehow, however, Edgerson’s account went unnoted in the Buffalo media.

*   *   *  *  *  *

Encounters between law enforcement and Buffalo’s African-American populace have a long history. In 1835, about 50 members of the city’s then-small black community battled a 60-man posse led by the Erie County sheriff in a bloody, two-hour brawl on Niagara Street to save a family of escaped slaves from being returned to captivity in the South. They won, getting the family to safety aboard the river ferry to Fort Erie. One of the African-American brawlers, the future abolitionist William Wells Brown, called it “one of the most fearful fights for human freedom that I have ever witnessed.”

During the racial foment of 1967 the Buffalo police helped the FBI fabricate charges that sent the Black Power activist Martin Sostre to prison. In 2006 the department fired Cariol Horne, a black female officer one year shy of qualifying for a pension, for intervening to stop a white male officer who was applying a chokehold to a handcuffed suspect. Horne’s pension case is only now being reopened.

In response to court rulings, the BPD disbanded Strike Force, a citywide street crime squad that targeted the predominantly black East Side using illegal searches and vehicle checkpoints. There were also the fatal police shootings of three men and the death of another in police custody over a two-year span.

Despite this grim record, the department has operated under only limited oversight, as Investigative Post has reported. In that vacuum, from 2015 through 2017 the BPD’s internal affairs unit cleared officers of wrongdoing in 94 percent of the complaints filed.

For Edgerson, those questions are summarized succinctly.

“They hit me upside the head, in the ribs,” he said, speaking from his living room in Williamsville. “It was rough.”

*   *   *  *  *  *

Edgerson was a defensive linchpin of the Bills’ championship teams, an AFL all-star cornerback who spent eight seasons with the team, then went on to stay in Buffalo. His name adorns the Bills’ Wall of Fame at New Era Field, testament to his respected presence on the gridiron as a player and in the community as an advocate for inclusion and racial justice.

That night in 1987 when the police pulled him over, he was director of equity and diversity at Erie Community College.

Booker Edgerson

Booker Edgerson today

“They said, ‘Get out,’” recalled Edgerson, 81, but still trim, fit and not far off the 5-10 and 183 pounds of his playing days. “I said: ‘What did I do? What’s the charge?’ They kept saying, ‘Get out, get out, get out’. And I saw it just wasn’t going to get any better, so I got out. And they beat the hell out of me.”

Initially, Edgerson said, there were only a male officer and a female officer. But when the beating started, they were joined by “two or three others — when you’re being attacked you’re not counting who all is there.”

“All I remember was they wanted me to do a breathalyzer and everything, and I told them to take me to a hospital. I was conscious, unconscious. The police report said they had taken me to a hospital, and I asked them to show me a sign or something because I didn’t see anything that said I was in a hospital — I didn’t know where the hell I was. Then I guess I blacked out again, and the next thing I know they were taking me into a police station and booking me.”

Perhaps Edgerson’s fame would have shielded him, had the cops known.

“During the lockup, when they took me in, I was conscious at that point,” he said. “I gave my name, they had my driver’s license. Somebody said: ‘You know who that is? That’s Booker Edgerson, former Buffalo Bills.’ And one of them said, ‘Well, why didn’t he say that?’”

Bills memorabilia of Cookie Gilchrist and Booker Edgerson

On the other hand, Edgerson knew that when it came to the police, being a black man could trump even being a Buffalo Bill. During his playing days in the early ’60s, he saw what happened to his teammate and Humboldt Parkway housemate, the legendary fullback Cookie Gilchrist, after a traffic stop.

“I remember when they arrested Cookie,” he said. “They egged him on, and as soon as he reacted, boom, they jumped all over him. I just happened to be at the police station, on Main Street. They had him in handcuffs, but he was going along at his own pace, and they kept poking him with the stick. And so finally he didn’t hit anybody, he just jerked the chain, or jerked something, and one of the police slipped and fell down. They jumped all over him with the batons and everything.”

Edgerson was released early the morning of his arrest after being booked on DWI and resisting arrest charges. Soon after, he said, he sued the city, which wound up dropping the charges and agreeing to a cash settlement. He does not know if the officers who beat him faced any discipline for their actions. Except for a brief sighting of the female officer at a hearing in his case, he never saw any of them again.

The Police Department referred requests for comment to Timothy A. Ball, the city’s corporation counsel. Ball said the city has no record of Edgerson’s suit because it clears out files seven years after a case is closed, per state guidelines.

Until recently, Edgerson preferred to keep the incident out of the public eye, he said.

*   *   *  *  *  *

The BPD has done its reputation no favors in recent weeks. After two members of its Emergency Response Team were charged with assault for injuring Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old protester, 57 other ERT members resigned from the squad in support of the officers; numerous officers gave them a standing ovation when they emerged from their arraignment.

On June 28, a lieutenant was caught on camera calling a woman challenging a police action a “disrespectful little fucking cunt.” The video went viral and he was quickly suspended. It turns out he has a long history of disciplinary problems, including four suspensions.

On June 30, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the officers who repeatedly punched Quentin Suttles during a traffic arrest in another incident captured on video.

Despite these repeated episodes of police conflict with African Americans and his own unpleasant run-in with the local force, Edgerson, who still works with the Bills and the NFLPA Retired Players Association, remains a supporter of the police in general.

I’m a long way from knocking the police, and I have great respect for the law,” said Edgerson, whose charity work often brings him in contact with various local police departments. “Ninety-five percent of the police, they’re fine,” he said.

But he keeps coming back to the police brutality cases sparking protests across the nation and the world. That finally convinced him to go public with his own experience.

“Look at the Floyd case,” he says, referring to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Look at the situation with the guy getting knocked down in Niagara Square. Look at the woman in Louisville. The young man in Georgia, they ambushed him. Your eyes see the truth.

“The brutality has to stop,” Edgerson said. “This case with Floyd finally broke the back. It has to stop.

“You’ve got to find a better way to police.”


Jeff Z. Klein was a reporter and editor with The New York Times for 19 years, including seven years as national hockey writer. He previously wrote and was the sports editor at The Village Voice for 10 years. He is the writer and producer of the “Heritage Moments” series on WBFO. He lives in Allentown.