Todd C. McAlister, one of the two Buffalo police officers being investigated in the Feb. 7 death of a young, unarmed African-American man, is seen as a potential rising star in the Police Department – a guy who left a job as a City Hall aide to become a cop. He's also African-American himself.
The other officer, Nicholas J. Parisi, who is white, is known as a hardworking cop who coaches youth football.
Both are 32 and on the night of Feb. 7, they were working as partners, as they often did, on the city's West Side.
The officers saw Wardel D. "Meech" Davis, 20, coming out of a Hoyt Street house, McAlister's attorney said the morning after the incident. Multiple drug arrests had been made at the house and the two officers had previously arrested Davis on drug charges. When the officers tried to handcuff him, police officials said, Davis tried to flee and a struggle ensued. After the officers handcuffed Davis, they realized he wasn't breathing. In the weeks since Davis was declared dead at Buffalo General Medical Center, protests demanding "Justice for Meech" have taken place around the city, including at Mayor Byron W. Brown's State of the City address on Feb. 17.
Now, McAlister and Parisi are awaiting the outcomes of an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office and an internal affairs probe by the Buffalo Police Department into how Davis died.
"In my opinion, they are outstanding officers in their work ethic and professionalism," said John Evans, first vice president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. "I think in the end when it comes out, we'll find they did absolutely nothing wrong."
But one Buffalo attorney said he had an encounter with McAlister that left him with a much different impression of the officer.
A cop with two master's degrees
McAlister grew up in Buffalo and went to Canisius College, where he went on to earn two master's degrees.
His first stint in City Hall was as an intern working with youth through a mentoring program, recalled former Council Member Demone A. Smith, who later hired McAlister as an aide in 2009.
"A very good worker," Smith said of McAlister. "Community-minded. Always in the neighborhood … a very smart guy."
McAlister was promoted to chief of staff for the whole Council in 2012. Smith recalled that McAlister got a unanimous vote from the Council for the job.
That's when Darius Pridgen, now president of the Common Council, worked with him.
“Very thorough, very well-educated,” said Pridgen, who was a Common Council member at the time.
But his stint would not last long. McAlister left the safe confines of City Hall to become a police officer.
“Todd had a desire, and this may sound like a bunch of hogwash, but the guy had a desire to help people," said Pridgen, who is also pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church.
Pridgen said he unsuccessfully tried to talk McAlister into staying at City Hall.
“This was his dream,” he said. “For a guy with two master’s degrees who was the supervisor of Council staff, he could write his own ticket. He decided that what he wanted to do was to be in law enforcement … The Council’s loss was the community’s gain.”
Council Member David A. Rivera, who represents the Niagara District where Davis died and who is himself a retired Buffalo police officer, said he believed McAlister had a bright future in the department.
"He has great potential," Rivera said. "There's room for upward mobility in the Buffalo Police Department. I thought he was a perfect candidate for that."
McAlister was among 21 cadets sworn in as police officers in January 2013. He was assigned to the Central District – also known as B District – which includes downtown Buffalo and part of the West Side.
Smith didn't want to speak for McAlister regarding the death on Hoyt Street. But, he said, "It's a tough thing for him, that's for sure," Smith said. "He's a good guy who cares about the community and I don't think he would do anything to jeopardize the life of anyone."
Pridgen said: "I am personally aware that Mr. McAlister wants a thorough investigation."
McAlister is being represented by Thomas H. Burton and Parisi has retained Anthony J. Latona. Both lawyers declined to comment for this story.
A chance encounter with McAlister
Following Davis’ death on Feb. 7, a local trial attorney told The Buffalo News about an encounter he had with McAlister. It was not violent but the attorney, R. Anthony Rupp III, said the incident left him with the impression that McAlister had a hot temper and was "in need of training."
On the night of Dec. 1, Rupp, 50, and his wife had just dined at Chef’s restaurant and were walking across Seneca Street to the restaurant’s parking lot at about 8:30 p.m. when he saw a vehicle with no headlights on coming toward them. Rupp said he quickly ushered his wife out of the way. Then he saw two women stepping down into the street close to the vehicle. Rupp thought he was about to witness a terrible accident but the vehicle slammed to a halt just a few feet from the women. The driver of the car flashed his high beams.
Rupp said he yelled out to the driver: “Turn on your headlights, a—hole."
Rupp and his wife continued walking into the outdoor lot and the vehicle pulled in as well. That was when Rupp said he realized that the vehicle was a black and white Buffalo police SUV and the driver was a police officer, Todd McAlister.
According to Rupp, the officer rolled down his window and said: "You know you could be arrested for that."
Rupp said he responded, "Are you kidding me?" He questioned McAlister why he would be arrested while McAlister was the one driving in the dark with no headlights on.
Rupp said McAlister "slams his car into park and he throws his door open."
"Give me your ID," McAlister said, according to Rupp.
Rupp acknowledged he was upset and that he wasn't about to try to de-escalate the situation. So he handed the officer his attorney ID.
Rupp said he told McAlister he could have killed the two women.
The lawyer said McAlister replied that he was taking his lieutenant’s vehicle to the garage for service on the headlights. He pointed out that he apologized to the women, but also said they were jaywalking.
The two argued and several other police officers, including Parisi, arrived.
Rupp demanded that McAlister get a ticket for driving without his headlights on.
Rupp said McAlister asked politely if he would give him his driver's license so that he could write up a ticket. Rupp complied and got a ticket: for a noise violation.
"He was very, very, very flustered. It made him look very young, very inexperienced, that he was in over his head," Rupp said.
The next day, Rupp enlisted one of his colleagues to represent him in fighting the ticket. He sent a letter to City Hall saying Rupp was pleading not guilty. Rupp also filed a five-page, single-spaced letter about the incident with the Buffalo Police internal affairs unit.
Three months later, Rupp has not received a reply to either his plea on the noise violation or his letter to internal affairs. Two weeks ago, he filed a notice of claim – the first step in a lawsuit – against the city over the incident.
"If a lawyer cannot stand up to a police officer reacting badly, what can an ordinary citizen do?" he said.
The Police Department did not give an official response to Rupp's allegations, but police officials and officers familiar with the situation pointed out that what the attorney alleged only represents one side of what transpired.
A cop who coaches kids
Nicholas Parisi joined the Buffalo Police Department in 2008. He has worked in the department's Mobile Response Unit and most recently in the Central District. In addition to his work as a police officer, he's also a youth basketball coach.
He has been recognized by the district attorney's office and the PBA for his police work.
Former Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita highlighted two cases Parisi was involved in:
On Dec. 9, 2012, Parisi was one of five officers who were called to a home invasion in progress on 19th Street. On Jan. 27, 2013, he helped arrest a man who was found in possession of marijuana and a loaded .25-caliber pistol at the foot of West Ferry.
The Buffalo PBA named Parisi one of three officers of the month in June 2015 after the trio cornered three suspected robbers who had fled to the emergency room of Women & Children's Hospital.
Three months later, Parisi and McAlister were both named officers of the month, along with two others. In that case, Parisi and McAlister arrived at the scene of a police-involved shooting on Sept. 8, 2015, and helped take a gunman into custody moments after a fellow officer shot him. An Erie County grand jury cleared the police of any wrongdoing in the shooting.
A former colleague described Parisi as "a nice, hardworking kid who always treated people right whenever I backed him up on calls or saw him on the street." Retired Buffalo Police Officer Wendy Collier said, "I worked in the Mobile Response Unit and worked with officers all over the city and I was shocked when Nick's name came up in all this."
Jim Palano, Parisi's former high school basketball and football coach, spoke in glowing terms about Parisi and his family, saying that he occasionally sees the officer at Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School football games.
"I see him when I come home and go to the football games. Nick's always respectful to me. He comes from a good family," said Palano. While working at the Catholic school 40 years, Palano also coached Parisi's older brother, Joseph, and hired the brothers' father to serve as an assistant football coach. "Nick was an all-Western New York athlete who played basketball and football. He was terrific. He was pretty mild mannered and easygoing," Palano said.
Parisi has remained active at his alma mater, Palano added, serving as an assistant basketball coach for a time and continuing as an assistant varsity football coach.
The role of race in probe
That one officer is white and one is black shouldn't matter in the investigation, Pridgen said, but the Council member recognizes how volatile Davis' death could be given other high-profile deaths of young, unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement around the country.
“Regardless of who it is, there needs to be a thorough investigation to continue building trust with the people,” said Pridgen. "It's important for there to be a thorough investigation and for it to be very transparent. That is for several reasons: to raise the trust of the public and the other is to ensure that our police officers, if they have done nothing wrong, are also protected."
The race of the officers doesn't matter to Davis' fiancee, Jashalyn Washington, either.
"It doesn't," she said. "I don't think it was a black and white thing. But I don't know what happened. I don't know why they happened to stop him. I don't know why they wanted to cuff him."