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Licensed gun owner claims he was 'manhandled,' injured by Amherst police

A retired state corrections officer says he was badly hurt when police grabbed him without warning and threw him to the ground as he waited at an Amherst radiology practice in January.

Amherst police say they were answering a complaint that a man was waving around a handgun in the lobby at Great Lakes Medical Imaging on Park Club Lane.

John P. Nowak Jr., of the Town of Tonawanda, insists he was doing no such thing and, further, he is licensed to carry a pistol.

Nowak, 52, said he suffered a bruised kidney and a meniscus tear in his left knee and developed inflammation in his right elbow. He has filed a notice of claim, the required precursor to a lawsuit, against the Town of Amherst and its Police Department.

The force used by Amherst's officers was, Nowak wrote, "objectively excessive."

A police official said officers responded appropriately to the report of a person displaying a weapon at a doctor's office. The officers did not arrest Nowak.

"We didn't trump up a charge or anything," Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen said. "We dusted him off and apologized, and we were on our way. But I suppose when you get helped to the floor by police, your next call is probably going to be to a civil attorney."

The incident started at about 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 14 when someone called 911 to report a suspicious man with a gun sitting on a bench inside the lobby at 199 Park Club Lane, Suite 300, according to a police report.

A witness, a 56-year-old patient from Ontario who asked not to be named, told The Buffalo News she saw a man with a gun tucked behind his back walk into the restroom. When he came out, more of the gun was visible.

She said she didn't see him waving around the gun, but she was concerned enough to report this to a secretary in the office. An employee made the call to 911 and the practice locked its doors after the man briefly went outside.

Amherst police arrived about five minutes later. They approached the man and, the report said, took him down to the ground at gunpoint and handcuffed him.

Nowak says he was "violently grabbed, manhandled, thrown to the ground (and) assaulted."

"My understanding is they did not ask him any questions before they tackled him," said Peter P. Vasilion, Nowak's attorney.

In the claim, Nowak said police responded to a report of a "madman" brandishing and pointing a handgun and insists he was, in fact, sitting peacefully reading a book.

Nowak told the responding officers, according to the police report, that his handgun was concealed and in a holster at all times. Nowak told them his shirt might have ridden up, exposing the gun, the officers reported.

"They apologized to him at the scene and let him go," Vasilion said.

Police informed the original caller and Great Lakes staff that Nowak was permitted to carry a handgun.

Officers confirmed Nowak holds a valid pistol license.

Nowak accuses the town and the department of failing to properly train their officers and of failing to ensure their officers properly carry out their duties. He added that he made a complaint shortly after the incident to Amherst police but he hadn't received a response as of the March 14 filing of the notice of claim.

Cohen said police had to check out the call because at least one person was unsettled by what she saw.

"The tone, before they got there, was kind of like, there's something hinky about this guy and he's not being real careful about making sure people don't see his gun," Cohen said.

Officers have to get control of an uncertain situation as soon as possible, he said, and that's why they don't always have the ability to slowly approach the subject and give verbal instructions.

It's early in the legal process and Vasilion said he's had only preliminary conversations with the town. He said his client would not comment to The Buffalo News.

The filing does not state how much Nowak is seeking in damages. Great Lakes Medical Imaging, which was not named in the notice of claim, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

"I don't think the police had done anything wrong," the witness said in a text message. "They did what they did for people's safety. If you see a civilian with a gun showing it's very scary, especially these days where we hear lots of problems."

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