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Editorial: A win for public access as jailhouse video is released

Now we know why Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration did not want the videotape released of a cellblock attendant manhandling a suspect in the basement of Buffalo City Court – it’s a real-life horror film.

The attendant, Matthew Jaskula, grabbed a handcuffed defendant from behind, threw him to the floor, then dragged him into a cell as blood pooled on the floor. Two Buffalo police officers stood by and did nothing, with one of them grinning, as the defendant, Shaun P. Porter, was roughed up.

The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the video’s release, while lawyers for the Brown administration opposed the release for more than two years. The public’s right to know finally triumphed last week when The News published the video online, one day after the Common Council settled Porter’s lawsuit against the city for $300,000.

Brown last week said he had always wanted the tape released, but had to wait until the legal case involving the city was completed. He said the city’s lawyers were following the lead of federal prosecutors and the victim’s attorney in fighting against the tape going public. We can’t know what was in the mayor’s heart, but the arc of the arguments made by the city’s lawyers did not bend toward transparency.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Guerra III told reporters in December 2017 that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had earlier that year dropped its objection to the video being made public. Jaskula’s defense lawyer, Paul G. Dell, said at that time that he concurred. Yet the city’s legal battle continued.

The News was joined by WKBW-TV in filing a FOIL request for the tape, which shows a government employee attacking a suspect inside a government facility. The videotape was part of Porter’s arrest record, meaning part of the public record, but was shielded from public view.

If anyone doubts why having a news media that is independent of the government, rather than subservient to it, is necessary, here is a perfect case. The cellblock video’s inconvenient truths about a city employee would still be hidden away were it not for the media organizations and their lawyers pressing their case.

Concealing the video was always a dodge. Fears that Jaskula would be deprived of an unbiased jury were vastly exaggerated. Picking a jury might take longer, and, in the worse case, courts can approve a change of venue. It’s possible to protect the rights of defendants and the public.

Since the assault in May 2016, Jaskula was arrested and pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony: deprivation of constitutional rights under color of law. He was sentenced in December 2017 to 18 months in prison, but was released after one year.

Police Officers Joshua T. Craig and Anthony J. D’Agostino, who stood by while Jaskula attacked Porter, were suspended for 30 days without pay. They remain on active duty.

State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister had agreed with the city’s contention that the cellblock video could be withheld because potential jurors in the criminal case against Jaskula could be swayed if the video entered the public realm. After the lawsuit against the city was settled last week, the city’s lawyers handed over the video.

Brown, reacting to the tape last week, called it “painful to watch.” It is not recommended for the faint of heart, but it’s not up to public officials to decide that we can’t handle the truth.

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