It may be that it’s just a few bad apples damaging the reputation of the Buffalo Police Department, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if those at the top are willing to do the hard work to instill a culture change.
The department has been under scrutiny over the past few weeks because of two separate incidents, both caught on surveillance and cellphone cameras, in which police officers have acted at the very least irresponsibly.
The first incident involved an attack by a police officer on a man already on the ground in handcuffs April 19 in Riverside. The latest occurred May 11 in a University Heights bar and involved an assault on an Air National Guard member. Witnesses said that one of the off-duty officers handcuffed the victim while unconscious after the assault.
It is difficult to change a culture, especially one in which its members have to suit up and be prepared to confront the ugliest incidents in the city, whether it’s a domestic violence call or a routine traffic stop that turns deadly. Law enforcement officers have to make difficult decisions quickly.
But in an era of cellphone and surveillance cameras, some incidents that might have gone unnoticed – or not believed – are coming to light. That is a good thing, protecting both the public and law enforcement officials who might otherwise be falsely accused of abuse.
Some officers don’t like being recorded because it makes wrongdoing harder to get away with. Officer John A. Cirulli ran into that problem when a witness made a video of the Riverside assault. Police say Cirulli threatened to confiscate a witness’s cellphone unless he deleted the recording, despite the fact that citizens have the right to record events that occur in public places. Fortunately, the man recording the attack evidently anticipated Cirulli’s demand and switched phones with another onlooker.
The May 11 incident at Molly’s Pub is a little more involved. Manager Jeffrey J. Basil and Buffalo Police Officer Robert E. Eloff, one of two officers providing off-duty security for Molly’s at the time, are shown on the bar’s surveillance video. Soon after the assault victim, William C. Sager Jr., was shoved down a flight of stairs inside the University Heights bar and gravely injured, the two are seen walking into the office where the surveillance equipment was kept.
Authorities say they believe that Basil took the recording device from the basement office and dumped it into a garbage tote nearby. Eloff’s role in the effort to get rid of the recording is being investigated.
After the assault, a complaint by Eloff resulted in Sagar’s companion being arrested for criminal trespass, a charge quickly thrown out during a City Court action Tuesday.
With police Internal Affairs and the FBI already investigating, Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen and his colleagues have rightly decided against conducting their own inquiry. In the future, though, they should consider reinvigorating the dormant Police Oversight Committee.
Meanwhile, the department should be reviewing its training to ensure it is doing as much as possible to weed out the bad apples, and it should tell all officers to assume their actions are being recorded. That should hasten the culture change.