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Cop threatened to seize cellphone after beating was recorded on video, police say

Buffalo Police Officer John A. Cirulli threatened to confiscate the cellphone of the man who made a video of the officer beating John T. Willet unless he deleted the recording, according to police.

The man, police say, apparently swapped his phone for another with a second man at the scene before the demand was made, and that is how the recording survived.

The video is the key piece of evidence in an investigation by the Internal Affairs Division of the Police Department. The FBI also is looking into the incident because of concerns about possible civil rights violations.

“He walked up to the guy who recorded the attack and asked for the phone,” a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said of Cirulli on Wednesday.

This observation is based, in part, on additional surveillance video of the scene showing Cirulli approaching the man who had recorded the incident.

The video was posted last weekend on YouTube. Monday, the six officers at the arrest scene were placed on paid administrative leave, and Tuesday, Cirulli was suspended without pay.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said he cannot comment on an active investigation but, speaking in broad terms, said citizens have the right to record events that occur in public places.

“A person has the absolute right to carry a cellphone and a video camera and record in a public space,” Hochul said.

That Cirulli allegedly sought to have the recording deleted also flies in the face of an excuse he has offered about why he was forceful in subduing Willet on the night of April 19 at the Philadelphia and Ontario streets in the city’s Riverside section.

Cirulli reportedly has said Willet, 22, of Buffalo, spit in his face. But there is no mention of that in the extensive police report narrative that the officer wrote detailing charges that Willet possessed heroin, cocaine and marijuana, in addition to resisting arrest, following a car and foot chase.

While the other officers stopped using force after handcuffing Willet, Cirulli has been identified by police sources as the officer who punched and kicked Willet in the head as he was lying facedown on the ground handcuffed from behind.

In reacting to the latest developments, a second law enforcement source said it seems that Cirulli would have wanted the video preserved, if it is true that Willet spat at him.

“You would think the officer would have said to the man recording the incident, ‘Did you get him spitting at me?’ ” the source said.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda declined to comment on Cirulli’s alleged attempt to have the recording erased, explaining that the investigation remains active.

But Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, had plenty to say on the issue of Cirulli trying to have the recording deleted.

“First Amendment rights of the public and press are coextensive. That’s what the courts have said in cases of people photographing and recording police performing their official duties in a public place,” Osterreicher said.

“So just as in this case where we had additional surveillance video of the incident – and it is my understanding the police have secured that – so it is under the same principle that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on a public street.”

Osterreicher was referring to a city surveillance camera and private surveillance cameras on a nearby store.

Citizens and journalists, he explained, are free to record police activities as long as they do not interfere in the performance of official duties.

The U.S. Department of Justice also has weighed in on public recordings and “stated in no uncertain terms that there are no circumstances under which a police officer may either delete or order to be deleted images shot by another person,” said Osterreicher, who provides legal counsel to the 7,000-member organization of visual journalists, which was established in 1946.

“This is not the first time that someone has alleged that a police officer either threatened or requested that images that someone recorded be deleted,” he said. “It comes up regularly across the country.”

Police supervisors, he added, are bringing themselves up to speed on First Amendment rights in this arena.

“I spend a good deal of my time training police officers on this issue,” Osterreicher said.

“I’ve provided training sessions to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association.”

Cirulli’s suspension, meanwhile, is based on allegations he violated various departmental rules against using excessive force after a suspect is handcuffed.

Three other officers at the scene, police said, did not see the attack that is shown on the videos, and are expected to return to patrol duties.

The actions of the remaining two officers who witnessed the attack but failed to report it continue to be scrutinized, authorities said.