Spurred by a tragedy, effort to reform Buffalo Police Department is under way - The Buffalo News
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Spurred by a tragedy, effort to reform Buffalo Police Department is under way

The death of William C. Sager Jr., the Air National Guardsman who was injured in an attack at Molly’s Pub on May 11, was made all the more tragic because of the presence of two off-duty Buffalo police officers at the bar.

Instead of providing an extra measure of protection inside the bar, the officers were present as the airman was gravely injured and treated as if he were the criminal.

The attack in Molly’s was just the worst in a series of recent incidents that have blackened the reputation of the police force. Those incidents have prompted the police commissioner to take steps to change the culture of out-of-control officers in his department.

Meanwhile, Sager’s family mourns the loss of the 28-year-old whose plans for the future included marriage and a career in public service. He was applying to become a state trooper.

Jeffrey J. Basil, the manager of Molly’s Pub in University Heights, allegedly pushed Sager down a flight of stairs inside the Main Street bar. Basil has been charged with attempted murder and first-degree assault. In the wake of Sager’s death, District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he will ask a grand jury to consider additional charges.

Sager suffered a brain injury and had been in serious condition in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Erie County Medical Center until his death a week ago.

The two officers, Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei, remain suspended from the force.

Among other incidents:

• A man already on the ground in handcuffs was attacked by a police officer April 19 in Riverside. When the officer realized the attack had been caught on cellphone video, he tried to confiscate the cellphone.

• Eloff and other off-duty officers participated in a violent take-down of a Chippewa Street bar patron on St. Patrick’s Day. That incident was also caught on video, and is expected to lead to a lawsuit against the city.

• Eloff and other officers moonlighting for Toro Tapas Bar on Elmwood Avenue tackled an adjunct professor in June 2013.

The effort to rein in the department is moving ahead on many fronts.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has prohibited officers from moonlighting outside bars and entertainment facilities. He rescinded the off-duty work permits of 20 officers and clamped down on work that had been allowed since 1998. Buffalo police have not been allowed to work off-duty jobs inside bars, but for some reason they were allowed to work security outside bars. Either job blurred the line between police and bouncers, and now officers are banned from such moonlighting.

Derenda has reminded officers that citizens have the right to record police activities when they occur in a public place. Trying to stop such recording – often the only hard evidence of police misconduct – is an intolerable abuse of authority.

Following multiple reports involving Eloff, the FBI is investigating whether he has engaged in a yearslong pattern that merits prosecution for civil rights violations, according to a Police Department source, and may examine other officers.

The Common Council has revived its long-dormant police oversight committee. Meetings of that committee will provide a forum to review police actions and assess reforms.

William Sager was buried this week, a few days after a benefit was held to defray medical and funeral expenses. The friends and family members should have been celebrating Sager’s wedding, which was to have taken place in July. Instead, they could only celebrate his too-short life.

We have said before that police have a difficult and dangerous job that requires split-second thinking. Most officers perform their jobs capably. But there have been too many incidents not to believe that the department has a problem. It’s a shame that it took the fatal assault on a young man to set a culture change in motion.

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