The investigation into the death of an unarmed Buffalo man during a struggle with two police officers on the city's West Side Tuesday night is now in the hands of the state Attorney General's office.
Eric Schneiderman's office formally opened the investigation Wednesday night. That means the Erie County District Attorney' office will not handle the probe into the death of 20-year-old Wardel Davis.
"Our office is committed to conducting a fair, comprehensive, and independent investigation to provide Mr. Davis' family with the answers they deserve," said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office. "We encourage anyone with relevant information to contact our Buffalo office."
The number for the AG's Buffalo office is (716) 853-8400.
In July 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order authorizing the state Attorney General to be appointed a special prosecutor to investigate police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians. The order means that the AG's office can supercede the jurisdiction of the local district attorney's office in these cases.
At the conclusion of such investigations, either charges are filed or a report about the findings is released to the public.
Cuomo’s 2015 order cites the weakening of public confidence and trust in the criminal justice system and the perception of bias explaining the reason for creating the special prosecutor position. The order came following public outcry when a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man whose arrest was captured on cellphone video.
District attorneys around the state have criticized Cuomo's executive order, saying it is unnecessary and politically motivated. Frank A. Sedita III, the former Erie County District Attorney who was also the chairman of the state district attorneys association, said at the time: “There’s no factual basis for the claim that prosecutors cannot fairly present these cases.”
Thomas H. Burton, the attorney representing Todd C. McAlister, one of the officers in the Wardel Davis case, called the move by the AG's office "uncharted territory."
"Unless an elected DA or police officers are shown to not be cooperating, there's no need to reinvent the wheel," Burton said Friday. The decision whether or not to prosecute, he said, "should be made locally."
So far, the AG's special prosecution unit has reviewed seven other cases across the state. One investigation led to the indictment of an off-duty New York City police officer in an alleged road-rage shooting death. Four, including Davis' case, remain open. Three have been closed with no charges field. Reports detailing the findings were issued in all three of those cases. The Davis case is the only one in the Buffalo area.
The investigation into Davis' death is expected to take months, as did the other cases.
For the third day in a row, people protested again on Friday over Davis' death. About 25 protesters marched outside the federal building on Delaware Avenue before moving the protest across the street to Statler City, where Mayor Byron W. Brown was reportedly attending an event.
Scene outside Statler City Friday night as Mayor Brown attended charity dinner inside. pic.twitter.com/8Z8IzD8qcC
— Harold McNeil (@HaroldMcNeilBN) February 11, 2017
In addition to Friday night's protest, John Washington, a member of PUSH Buffalo, also took part in gatherings held Wednesday night at Hoyt and Arnold streets, near where Davis died, and on Thursday night outside the Buffalo Police Department's B District Station at Main Street and Tupper Avenue.
"We want to demand answers from our mayor and our elected officials. We want to demand their full support in getting these officers charged and held accountable," Washington said Friday.
Intermittently, protesters chanted "no justice, no peace," and "Mayor Brown, can't you see what the police are doing to me?"
The protesters also marched in front of Statler City. Elisa Scheiber, who identified herself as a neighbor of Davis, was among the marchers.
"Wardel Davis was my neighbor. We want answers. Why haven't they released the body cam images? If there was no problem, they should feel like they can do that. Obviously, there's an issue and they feel like they can't release those images," Schreiber said.
Davis died late Tuesday after he was stopped by police in front of a Hoyt Street house. Davis fought with the officers, McAlister and Nicholas J. Parisi, when they tried to handcuff him, an attorney for the officers told The Buffalo News. After they put handcuffs on him, they tried to lift him up at which point they realized that he was in medical distress. The officers began administering CPR at the scene and Davis was taken to Buffalo General Hospital where he was pronounced dead. A cause of death has not been determined. An autopsy was conducted Wednesday but authorities are awaiting the results of toxicology tests to determine the cause.