He’s getting off easy. Despite what a prosecutor or anyone else says to defend the brief stay in prison likely for former Buffalo Police Officer Robert E. Eloff, a cop who dishonors his badge the way Eloff did deserves more time in prison.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., who is normally a voice of reason, said that a year in prison is especially punitive because Eloff was a cop. Hochul’s looking through the wrong end of the binoculars.
It is specifically because Eloff was a cop that he needed to be held to a higher standard. He was entrusted by the public to carry a gun and to deprive others of their liberty as part of his critical duties. With that authority comes a special requirement to honor the rules. Instead, Eloff broke them, working with a vicious bar manager to effectively cover up what turned into a homicide.
You don’t have to be a cop for power to go to your head. That’s simply human weakness, something to which any of us, police officer or not, may be prone. But there are few places where the abuse of authority is more devastating than when police do it and, unfortunately, examples of it abound.
In the Molly’s Pub case, Eloff helped the bar’s manager, Jeffrey J. Basil, disguise the scene where Basil had shoved William C. Sager Jr. down a flight of steps, causing severe brain injuries that turned out to be fatal. Eloff was off duty and working security at the bar at the time and, for reasons only he will ever be able to explain, complied with Basil’s order that Eloff place Sager under arrest. Eloff then put handcuffs on the unconscious victim, making him appear to be the offender.
And he wasn’t through. When a friend of Sager, Donald Hall, had the temerity to ask about his friend’s condition and then to ask another officer for Eloff’s name and badge number, Eloff arrested him, too. That arrest formed the basis of the civil rights violation he pleaded guilty to.
What Eloff demonstrated that night was a pervasive failure of character. He valued his relationship with Basil – already a felon and frequently in trouble with the law – more than he did his sworn duties as a police officer. He acted to help cover up the facts surrounding a serious assault and then to illegally intimidate Hall.
Eloff was indicted on felony civil rights charges that could have resulted in 10 years in prison. Instead, he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor carrying a maximum sentence of one year when he is sentenced later this year.
Sager’s grieving father had it right. William C. Sager Sr. pointed out that his son, an Air National Guardsman, took an oath that he lived up to every day. Why, he wondered, didn’t Eloff take his sacred oath as a police officer as seriously?
It’s an important question and one whose significance demands more than a year in prison for so grievous a violation. And it wasn’t the first time Eloff had been in trouble over his official conduct. Before helping to cover up Sager’s assault, he faced departmental charges and a loss of pay for viciously beating another patron of Molly’s Pub after he had been handcuffed.
Despite all of this, Eloff’s lawyer, Herbert L. Greenman, said he hoped that people would not “forget the terrific police officer he was.”
Eloff may have done some good things as a Buffalo police officer, but he squandered whatever reputation he had when he failed his duty that night at Molly’s. With that, the word terrific no longer applied.