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Focus in brutality case is on 3 of the 6 officers, as others are expected to be cleared soon

The investigation into police brutality that came to light with a YouTube video over the weekend focuses on three officers, while three others soon may be exonerated, authorities said Tuesday.

Officer John A. Cirulli has been identified as the officer punching and kicking John T. Willet, 22, after he was handcuffed and lying on the ground.

The Police Department said Cirulli has been suspended from duty without pay for “violations of various departmental rules and regulations.”

Officers Lindsay A. Laracuente-Zgoda and Lamar M. McCulley are identified as the officers standing above Willet as he was beaten.

The other three officers walked away before the beating occurred and did not witness it, police officials say. They were identified as Officers Nicholas A. Militello, Dennis R. Gilbert and Brian O. Griffin.

Cirulli placed his knee either on Willet’s head or neck, authorities said, as three officers struggled to handcuff Willet, who had led police on a car and foot chase in the city’s Riverside section on the night of April 19.

Several police officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, because departmental regulations prevent them from talking to reporters, say Cirulli’s actions were unacceptable and may have placed the careers of other officers in jeopardy.

Officers are legally obligated to report instances of police brutality, and that does not appear to have occurred in this case.

In addition to the YouTube video posted Saturday, at least two other videos exist of the incident, one from a police surveillance camera and the other from a store in the area.

All six officers were placed on administrative leave Monday as Internal Affairs continued its investigation, but Gilbert, Griffin and Militello soon may be allowed to return to work.

For Cirulli, it’s a different story. He has been suspended without pay.

The video that two eyewitnesses recorded on a cellphone at about 10:30 p.m. April 19 at Philadelphia and Ontario streets appears to be a convincing piece of evidence against Cirulli, according to authorities.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Tuesday that his office is initiating a review of the incident to determine if Willet’s civil rights were violated.

“Our office is going to work with our federal partners to determine whether or not there was a violation civil rights laws,” Hochul said. “This office has taken a zero-tolerance approach to instances of police brutality over the past several years. We have convicted five officers and deputies of civil rights violations where the officer crossed the line and used excessive force.”

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III declined to say whether his office is also investigating the case but added that he has been in contact with Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

“I reached out to the Buffalo police commissioner first thing Monday morning and offered the assistance of my office,” Sedita said.

Derenda and Mayor Byron W. Brown both stated Monday that inappropriate police conduct will not be tolerated. The commissioner declined to comment Tuesday on the status of the internal investigation, except to say it continues to progress at a fast pace. The fact that Willet, of Buffalo, is accused of having drugs in his possession – heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana – does not excuse the use of excessive force, police officials said, explaining that once a suspect is handcuffed, physical force no longer is permitted.

Police Officer Kevin M. Kennedy, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, the union representing officers, declined to comment.

Rodney O. Personius, a top Buffalo defense lawyer, has confirmed that he was contacted by Cirulli and said that they intend to meet.

Cirulli, 31, joined the Police Department in 2008 and has worked in various districts throughout the city. In his six years as an officer, his name has appeared in several newspaper articles involving significant arrests involving robbery, car theft and assault.

Part of the investigation also focuses on why Gilbert and Griffin were in the Northwest District when they work in the Ferry-Fillmore District. These two officers, who patrol in an unmarked car, have been involved in numerous high-profile arrests, including the arrest of a murder suspect in 2012. A year after that, Gilbert received a citation for bravery from the commissioner.

Gilbert, 48, also works as the head football coach at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in the Town of Tonawanda and is regarded as a role model for members of the team, according to William M. Collins, a close family friend and the principal of Travers Collins, a Buffalo marketing and communications company.

“From what I have been told by family members and people very close to Dennis, he and his partner walked away once the man was handcuffed and went and looked for evidence that the suspect was allegedly unloading from his pockets during the chase,” Collins said.

A graduate of St. Joe’s, Gilbert is in the high school’s athletic hall of fame and has served as the head football coach for several years. He joined the Police Department in 2007.

“He works the overnight shift so that he can serve as the coach in the day, and not only is he a great football coach, he is a great role model for these young men,” Collins said.

Robert T. Scott, president of the school, issued this statement Tuesday concerning Gilbert:

“We are aware that Mr. Gilbert has been placed on administrative leave along with five other Buffalo police officers who were allegedly present at the incident occurring April 19. It is our understanding that this action is standard practice for an Internal Affairs Division investigation.

“While St. Joe’s does not have any information to conclude that Mr. Gilbert acted inappropriately, we are monitoring this situation and will defer any action until the investigation is complete.”

Griffin, 39, joined the Police Department in 1999.

In 2008, McCulley, while off duty, fatally shot a teenager who placed a BB gun to his head and tried to rob him outside a gas station/mini-mart at East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street. Several months later, an Erie County grand jury cleared McCulley of wrongdoing.

Militello, 24, began his career in 2012. He is the son of Detective Charles G. Militello.

Laracuente-Zgoda, 30, also started with the police department in 2012 and is regarded by fellow officers as honest.

Standing in the pouring rain outside Police Headquarters downtown at noon Tuesday, group of 10 people protested police brutality.

Among them was a young man who identified himself only as “J.T.,” founder of the local chapter of Cop Block of Western New York, which placed the video onto the Internet on Saturday.

“I’ve had the video since Saturday. It was sent to me through a friend of a friend of Mr. Willet,” he said.

Asked what he thought of how the police responded, J.T. said, “I’m overly satisfied with how quickly the investigation has progressed.”

Derenda and the mayor were emailed copies of the video Friday, and the commissioner said he immediately directed Internal Affairs to begin an investigation.

Eleanor F. Dorritie, local organizer for the Buffalo chapter of the International Action Center, said she set up the protest to ensure public awareness.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t get swept under the rug,” Dorritie said. “I was outraged by what I saw on the video. We’re on this because there is a lot of evidence from people in the community, especially the black community, that police have been getting away with it for a very long time.”

Hochul, in speaking with The News, said that although his office aggressively pursues allegations of police brutality, he believes that “the vast majority of officers have demonstrated the highest level of professionalism here in Western New York.”