In a depressing bog of bad news out of the Buffalo Police Department, there is at least one diamond in the muck: Two lieutenants understood their obligation to the public, to a prisoner and to the law and acted promptly to do the right thing after a vicious assault.
As to the rest of it, it’s shocking and disturbing, even given what Americans have seen in recent years documenting instances of police officers abusing their authority. Federal prosecutors say that Matthew Jaskula, a civilian police employee, promoted that very day to senior cellblock attendant, assaulted a handcuffed prisoner and left him without medical attention for more than 90 minutes.
Prosecutors have jailhouse video of the assault, but they’re wrongly not releasing it.
This is what Jaskula, 26, is accused of doing the night of May 19 as video cameras took it in: As the prisoner, Shaun F. Porter, faced a wall and asked to see a lawyer, Jaskula grabbed the handcuffed man by his arms and shoved him face-first into a metal door, forcing it open. The prisoner fell or was dropped, striking his face on the ledge of a shelf before hitting the floor – once again, face first.
Porter become limp and unresponsive, investigators said, yet Jaskula kept up the abuse, dragging the man down a hallway to an open cell. Blood was on the floor. The prisoner now hit his head a third time, on the cell’s door frame. The FBI says blood could also be seen in the cell. Finally, Jaskula placed the profusely bleeding victim in a restraint chair used for uncooperative prisoners and left him without medical care for up to an hour and 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, the officers who brought Porter to the jail, Joshua T. Craig and Anthony J. D’Agostino, did nothing to intervene. The video is said to show Craig laughing and D’Agostino appearing to be shocked. Both men have been suspended without pay. U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has declined to say if the officers will be charged with an offense.
The only redeeming aspect of this revolting episode is the professional response of two supervising lieutenants who became suspicious of Porter’s injuries, despite Jaskula allegedly telling them that the prisoner simply had a bloody nose and had refused treatment. They watched video of the event within a day and soon, the Police Department’s Internal Affairs unit and the FBI began investigating. Jaskula has been charged with a federal offense of depriving Porter of his rights under the color of law. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. If he’s guilty, he deserves it.
The lieutenants’ conduct is redeeming not simply because they insisted on enforcing the law, but also because by doing so, they breached the so-called blue wall of silence that some officers use to shield others from the consequences of their actions. It’s just the message that will help to embolden the overwhelming number of honest officers in most police departments while putting the others on notice that there is a price for violating the rules, including those that deal in simple human decency.
Meanwhile, other questions arise in this episode:
• How did a 26-year-old come to be a senior cellblock attendant in the first place? What did he do to demonstrate the kind of temperament needed for that difficult job?
• What is Jaskula’s history in the jail? It’s rare for someone to be caught the first time he breaks the rules. Have other prisoners been assaulted?
• Did Jaskula have reason to believe that his abusive conduct was normal in the city jail and, if so, where did he learn it?
• What training, if any, do police officers have in stopping an assault such as this? Are they required by law or at least departmental policy to intervene? What are the consequences for failure and do officers know what they are?
Meanwhile, as everyone, including police, should know: Video is everywhere today. Almost every American carries a phone capable of recording. Banks, stores and even residences have video surveillance. Anyone who breaks the law is liable to find that his actions have been recorded.
But maybe some people are so far gone they don’t really care.