Altercation on Elmwood in ’13 sheds new light on cop misconduct - The Buffalo News
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Altercation on Elmwood in ’13 sheds new light on cop misconduct

Leonard F. Jacuzzo is convinced that when Buffalo police would moonlight as bar security, they served the bar, not the community. He learned this the hard way about a year ago and wishes now that he had complained loudly and publicly.

Jacuzzo says that if he had raised a ruckus, maybe the State Liquor Authority would have spoken up at the time to tell the Buffalo Police Department it was violating state law by allowing its sworn officers to work off-duty for bar owners. Maybe Buffalo would have banned the practice in 2013.

Then, Jacuzzo wonders, would a bar manager in University Heights still have shoved a patron down a flight of stairs on Mother’s Day 2014?

Would William C. Sager Jr.’s attacker have been so bold without his own force of two off-duty cops there to back him up?

“The saddest part of this whole thing, for me, is that I did not successfully pursue justice in my case,” said Jacuzzo, an adjunct professor who teaches courses in ethics and logic at SUNY Fredonia. “Had I done so, and had the laws regarding police as bouncers come to public attention, the Molly’s incident may not have occurred.”

Days after bar manager Jeffrey J. Basil was charged in that assault in Molly’s Pub, which was witnessed by two off-duty officers working security for the bar, Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda told his staff they could no longer moonlight directly for bars. He did so years after many other departments had restricted their personnel from doing so.

While Derenda had been considering such a ban, he acted after a Liquor Authority spokesman issued a public reminder that police in New York may have no interest in the sale or manufacture of alcohol. Police providing security directly for bar owners crosses the line, even if they focus only on crowd control outside, the spokesman said.

It was another way of saying that the cops who hauled the unconscious Sager out of the bar and placed him in handcuffs should not have been working for Molly’s in the first place.

Perhaps Buffalo could have done what some cities do: Bar owners contact the Police Department when they want to hire cops. Then the bar owner, or perhaps a business-improvement district, pays the department for the protection. The officers then take their direction from the police hierarchy, not the holder of a liquor license promoting sales.

Sidewalk confrontation

The Buffalo Police Department now conducts around 450 internal investigations each year. Derenda said that he had never heard of the incident involving Jacuzzo but that if Jacuzzo had formally complained, the matter would have been investigated.

“People should file if they have complaints. If they don’t file them, we don’t know about them,” Derenda said. “(Jacuzzo) can file it now if he wants to, and we can look into it. But trying to track something down a year later, with witnesses and video from a bar, wouldn’t be easy to do.”

Jacuzzo suffered minor injuries. Sager’s injuries were far more serious. He remains in Erie County Medical Center with severe brain damage from a life-threatening fall.

Still, Jacuzzo’s incident in June 2013 raised some of the same questions that arose nearly a year later at Molly’s Pub: When police moonlight in bars, whom do they protect? And whose interests do they serve?

Around 2:30 a.m. June 15, 2013, Jacuzzo, a night owl, walked from his apartment on West Utica Street to a Sunoco minimart on Elmwood Avenue for a six-pack of his favorite beer: Miller High-Life in 16-ounce cans.

Outside the Toro Tapas Bar on Elmwood, the sidewalk was crowded with patrons who had spilled out of the establishment’s open storefront. Jacuzzo grew annoyed that he was forced into the street to make his way around them. So he complained to an off-duty officer working security for the bar.

The officer’s dark polo shirt had the word “police” on the back and the Buffalo police logo in the front.

“Excuse me, can you clear the sidewalk, please?” Jacuzzo said, according to his own written account of his saga.

“What?” the cop responded.

“Are these people loitering?” Jacuzzo asked him.

Again the off-duty officer replied, “What?”

Smallish, with a crooked nose and a rapid wit, Jacuzzo, 43, comes across as someone who has no problem questioning authority.

“Are you on duty?” Jacuzzo asked.

“Who are you?” the officer responded.

“I’m Dr. Leonard Jacuzzo. Who are you?”

“I’m the guy that is going to arrest you if you don’t leave.”

“On what charge?” Jacuzzo wondered aloud.

He said the officer, whose name he never learned, then shoved him twice in the chest.

Jacuzzo turned to continue toward the minimart, and the cop kept pushing him as he walked off.

“Now you are chasing me?” Jacuzzo said over his shoulder. He said he knew the law and his rights and told the officer to leave him alone. The officer then returned to Toro.

Still shaken when he arrived home, Jacuzzo called the Police Department’s B District station, in the Theater District. He said he was told that if the officers were in polo shirts at Toro, they were employed privately at the time. He could either take up the matter with Toro’s management, or he could proceed with a complaint.

He slept on it, and the next morning chose to talk to Toro. He arrived around 5 p.m., as the bar and restaurant opened for the evening. Over a beer, he told a bartender what had transpired. He said he left his name and number.

Hours later, around 2:45 a.m., he again walked to the minimart. On his return home, he passed Toro and had an idea. With patrons again spilling out of the bar, Jacuzzo used his phone to take a picture of the crowd. Three off-duty police were present this time, and when the flash went off on Jacuzzo’s BlackBerry, one of the cops was sipping from a glass.

Cellphone taken away

All of the officers zeroed in on Jacuzzo, even though he had legally taken a picture of a public scene from a public sidewalk.

“Why did you take my picture?” a stocky officer asked, according to Jacuzzo.

“Because you are a public servant, and I can,” Jacuzzo responded.

Jacuzzo didn’t recognize the stocky officer from the night before, but the officer seemed to know of him.

“You’re the guy that called B District last night, aren’t you?” he said, according to Jacuzzo.

“Yes,” Jacuzzo said.

He said that he was thrown to the ground and that a knee was planted in his chest as two of the officers tried to wrench the phone from his hand. Another knee was placed at his ear. When they finally had the phone – Jacuzzo never saw it again – he was wrestled into handcuffs. He said he was told he would be charged with “obstruction.”

One of his former students, Gian Carlo Misso, was inside the bar and took notice. Misso said he didn’t see the takedown but saw Jacuzzo after he was hoisted to his feet.

“That man was a mess,” Misso said.

He said that Jacuzzo’s face was red and that his clothes were askew. Misso figured Jacuzzo was drunk and probably just needed to go home. He tried to talk to one of the officers to say he knew Jacuzzo and that he didn’t deserve the rough treatment.

“I asked him politely, I said, ‘Hey, may I have a word with you?’ ” Misso said.

“I basically told him, ‘Look, this guy is harmless.’ ”

Misso knew that Jacuzzo lived around the corner and suggested that the officer simply let Misso get him to his apartment.

“As soon as I said that, he got so disgusted with me. He said, ‘What the (expletive). Do you want to go to jail with him?’ ” Misso recalled.

Misso decided to leave but tried to take his own video or photos of the scene as he departed. An officer again asked Misso if he wanted to go to jail. Misso said his phone was taken from his hands and the images were deleted before the device was given back.

Reports of Buffalo police demanding the deletion of cellphone images are not uncommon. When Officer John A. Cirulli knew he had been recorded smacking a handcuffed defendant, he insisted the citizen erase the data. The citizen convinced Cirulli the images were erased when they actually were safely stored away.

Later, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. was among those assuring the public in May that citizens have the right to record video and photos in a public space.

Jacuzzo said that while in handcuffs, he was choked and slapped in the head. Someone – he thinks it was a Toro bouncer – discovered that his backpack contained cans of beer. That person opened one and suggested the police cite him for having an open container. Jacuzzo still thinks it odd that he was cited for, among other things, “public drinking” when Toro patrons were outside drinking, too.

Eventually the third officer, who had stayed out of the effort to wrestle Jacuzzo to the ground and seize the phone, intervened. In time, an on-duty officer pulled up and Jacuzzo was booked and held overnight on several charges. He was released the next day on an appearance ticket.

A friend of Misso’s tweeted two messages later that day: “Witnessed a Philosophy teacher from ferdonia (sic) get abused by security at Toro last night,” the witness wrote. He said the teacher had been “thrown to the ground, cuffed, intimidated.” He added later: “You’d think someone would call the fuz, but apparently these guys are PO? I didn’t wait to see how it ended, but it wasn’t right.”

Jacuzzo said that after he arrived home with his appearance ticket, a police car cruised by his apartment on West Utica.

“We see you, (expletive). We see you,” someone yelled from the vehicle, he said.

When Jacuzzo walked by Toro on another night, the manager told him he had obtained an order of protection against him and that Jacuzzo could not even walk on the sidewalk in front of the bar and restaurant.

Neil P. Caldiero managed Toro at the time. He told The Buffalo News he didn’t remember Jacuzzo’s arrest in the early morning of June 16, 2013, but he did remember that Jacuzzo would often drift around the neighborhood, appearing drunk, with a backpack full of beer. Caldiero said an order of protection was obtained – he didn’t remember if it was before or after Jacuzzo’s arrest – because Jacuzzo would harass the female staff.

“Off-color comments of all kinds,” Caldiero explained.

Caldiero said he showed Jacuzzo the order.

Jacuzzo said that soon after his arrest, Caldiero showed him only an application for an order of protection. Jacuzzo said he was never served with paperwork, indicating an order of protection was in place and added: “I don’t harass people.”

Toro owner Nick Kotrides denied a Buffalo News interview request June 6.

‘If you see something …’

With his arrest, Jacuzzo faced counts of harassment, trespassing, disorderly conduct and public drinking. The disorderly conduct and public drinking charges were dismissed in Jacuzzo’s first court appearance. The violations were based on a complaint given to an on-duty officer who completed the paperwork. But the officer had not witnessed the conduct, a requirement for violation-level offenses.

Paperwork explaining the trespassing charge didn’t specify the property involved and implied that Jacuzzo was inside the bar when he wasn’t, his lawyer complained at the time. Days later, the remaining charges against Jacuzzo were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal six months later.

For the last year, Jacuzzo has resented the treatment he received and thought about doing more but didn’t. Then he heard of the attack at Molly’s and felt he had to tell his story.

“The people of Buffalo, including me, allow the police to continue being jerks,” he said. “It happened to me, and had I done something, maybe things would have changed.

“That’s the whole point I would like to make: If you see something, say something,” he said.

“Stand up for each other.”


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