It was a sad day in Erie County on Friday. Not so much because Sheriff’s Deputy Kenneth Achtyl was convicted of assaulting a civilian — though it’s always depressing when cops have to be called to account — but because the sheriff and the deputies union are raising phony issues to criticize the prosecution of the case.
The conviction itself served a valuable purpose. It was based on clear evidence, both of assault and official lying. It affirmed the need to ensure that officers entrusted with enforcing the law don’t think they are somehow above it.
Much worse was the petulance of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and the deputies union. Based on their comments, they either don’t understand the difference between arresting a suspect and mauling one or they think that once you put on a badge and a billy club, anything goes.
It doesn’t. Thanks to the firmness of District Attorney John J. Flynn and the courage of a jury, that clear message was sent, regardless of departmental efforts to muddy it.
It is telling that both Howard and the union trained their fire on Flynn and not on the jury. The inevitable conclusion is that they know the jury got it right but want to claim that Flynn got it wrong by giving the jury that opportunity. It won’t fly.
Achtyl was convicted Friday of reckless assault, official misconduct and falsifying business records in connection with his attack on University at Buffalo student Nicholas Belsito at a December 2017 Bills game.
Belsito had sworn at Achtyl — never a good idea, but legal nonetheless — in a dispute over finding a friend who had been arrested. Video, including some recorded by another deputy’s body camera, clearly showed that Achtyl needlessly attacked Belsito, bloodying his face, breaking his nose and inflicting a concussion. Achtyl’s official reports then misrepresented the confrontation.
Howard was on the wrong side of this from the start. Not content to allow the justice system to take its course, he attended the trial in uniform, sitting directly behind Achtyl, sometimes conversing with the deputy, his family and his defense team. The message to the jury was as clear as it was inappropriate. But the jury didn’t fall for it.
After the verdict, Howard criticized Flynn for releasing the body camera video to the public. “The concern I’ve had since the beginning is the body camera footage would be released prematurely and without faithful explanation of what was happening in the background,” he said.
It’s a phony issue. Achtyl’s defense team had a whole trial in which to make the “faithful explanation” that would overcome the evidence. It didn’t because it couldn’t.
The union, meanwhile, mischaracterized the case while criticizing Flynn for having the temerity to prosecute it.
“This district attorney has attacked the credibility and integrity of our members in a case where the complainant admitted in his own testimony that he was not compliant with the police,” Christian Parisi, president of the Erie County Sheriff’s Police Benevolent Association, said in a Facebook post.
No. What Flynn attacked was criminality by a union member. He has also sided with deputies in the past, a fact that the union overlooked.
What is more, the issue of Belsito’s admission is a red herring. If deputies thought Belsito should have been arrested, then fine. Go ahead and arrest him. What they are not allowed to do is to commit crimes under color of law. That’s what Achtyl did, and Flynn called him on it.
In the end, though, this is a leadership problem. Former Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda made clear his demand for an honest, ethical police force, and his officers understood that. Howard seems not to care whether his deputies break the law.