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Buffalo police credited with saving lives, but gunman's surrender is questioned

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Tops shooting Gramaglia

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, shown speaking at a Saturday news conference, said police “responded as we were trained.”

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The quick response of Buffalo police may have prevented the death toll from surpassing the 10 victims who were slain at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue on Saturday, authorities said.

But the circumstances around the peaceful surrender of the white supremacist shooter remained a sore spot among some in the Black community Sunday afternoon.

If the shooter were Black, said Betty Maclin of Buffalo, “he’d have been dead before he came out the door.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown and top law enforcement officials said police officers saved a lot of lives and did not need to fire a shot to subdue the suspect. 

The shooter planned to leave Tops after the massacre and travel south on Jefferson Avenue to Emslie – a neighborhood that according to U.S. census data is 71 percent Black – to shoot more people of color, his manifesto stated.

"Or if I find another decent location the day of the attack (example being Walmart) I'll head there," the shooter wrote. 

Buffalo Police Department Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia briefs the media on the investigation into the mass shooting at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue, classifying the attack as a "absolute racist hate crime."

Still, criticism of the Buffalo police's use of force against Black residents in past incidents bubbled up as the community mourned the victims and searched for ways to heal on Sunday. The day was marked by several major developments in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in Buffalo history and the deadliest in the country this year:  

• President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are coming to Buffalo on Tuesday.

• As reported Saturday by The Buffalo News, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said the New York State Police investigated a report last year that accused shooter Payton Gendron, 18, had threatened to commit violence at his high school in Conklin, in Broome County.

• Gramaglia said at a news conference that state police required Gendron to undergo a mental health evaluation, but could do nothing else because the threat was not against specific individuals and it was not racially motivated.

• Gramaglia said investigators believe Gendron came to Buffalo for the first time on Friday. 

• Gendron is being held in protective custody at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo, said defense attorneys, Brian K. Parker, who said he is mapping out strategies to defend the accused from the first-degree murder charge.

• In Gendron's hometown, a heavy police presence on the block where the accused shooter's family lives continued Sunday, with state police blocking the road leading to the residence as authorities gathered at the home. Neighbors described Gendron as one of the last people they would have predicted to carry out such a heinous act.

• Tops Markets pledged to reopen the store where the shooting occurred, but said it will stay closed until further notice. 

• Nationally renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump has been retained by the family of Ruth Elizabeth Whitfield, 86, one of the 10 victims killed in the shooting, in what portends to be the first of many potential lawsuits related to the case. 

• Gov. Kathy Hochul and State Attorney General Letitia James consoled Buffalonians at an interdenominational prayer service at a packed Macedonia Baptist Church. James vowed to look into whether the “daily diet of hate” from social media may have influenced Gendron’s actions. And she promised to hold gun manufacturers and distributors accountable. 

Meanwhile, Mayor Brown said the shooter, who was from Broome County and left a racist manifesto online, “came here with the express purpose of taking as many Black lives as he could. So the Buffalo police saved a lot of lives yesterday.”

“The Buffalo Police responded in less than two minutes after this incident began,” Brown said in an afternoon news conference at a Jefferson Avenue fire station. "If not for their swift response and courageous actions, more lives probably would have been lost yesterday.” 

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said the decision of responding officers to confront the heavily-armed shooter rather than wait for backup likely prevented more carnage.

“The bravery by the Buffalo police officers to engage an individual with a vest, an assault rifle with handguns, I just cannot say enough about their actions,” Garcia said.

Garcia singled out retired police officer Aaron Salter, who was working as a Tops Markets security guard, for engaging the shooter in a gun battle that ultimately cost Salter his life.

Salter “confronted this individual to save the lives of others,” Garcia said. “May he rest in peace.”

But as crowds gathered on Jefferson Avenue on Saturday and again Sunday morning, sadness at the loss of life was mixed with anger that the gunman was able to surrender peacefully.

That’s because police across the country have fatally shot young Black men who were unarmed and who posed much lesser threats than Gendron, who went on a shooting rampage with an AR-15 assault rifle, said Jeffrey Watkins of the Cold Spring neighborhood.

“We don’t know how the hell he made it out of here alive,” said Watkins, motioning toward the Tops Markets parking lot. “If a Black person would have had a screwdriver in his hand, he’d have been killed.”

Multiple Black men have been shot by Buffalo police in the last few years as officers tried to get them to surrender.

In March, Dominique Thomas, a 30-year-old Black man from Buffalo who was having a mental health crisis, was shot by Buffalo police as he ran toward officers on Hertel Avenue. He survived the shooting and was hospitalized.

That same month, Buffalo police engaged in a city-wide police chase with Kente Bell, 28, a Black man from Buffalo who fled after a traffic stop. Both Bell and multiple police officers suffered injuries.

In 2020, Buffalo police shot Willie N. Henley, a 60-year-old homeless Black man with mental health issues, after police said he hit an officer with a baseball bat. Henley later filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Police have said the Tops Markets shooter was dressed in body armor, had a military grade helmet on his head, was armed with a high-powered rifle and livestreamed video of the attack.

“The guy walked out of the store, the cops were just screaming at him, and he just stood there," said Katherine Crofton, who witnessed the shooting. "He just stood there. It was like he wanted them to shoot him.” 

The shooter began to remove his gear, Crofton said. When another police car pulled up, officers got out and jumped on him.

Police Commissioner Gramaglia said police “responded as we were trained.”

“Any opportunity that we have – and that’s what we teach to de-escalate a situation – we are not looking to shoot anyone,” Gramaglia said.

Gramaglia noted that Gendron, after exiting Tops, pointed the rifle at himself, not at police.

“The shooting had stopped at that point and the officers moved in very quickly to de-escalate,” he said. “Had the need come into play where they were forced to take deadly physical force, then they would have acted on that.”

Attorney Crump, who is teaming up with co-counsel Terry Connors of Connors LLP and Ken Abbarno of DiCello Levitt, said his team is also investigating the events that led up to the shooting.

"These grieving families deserve to know how a white supremacist, so vocal about his hatred, was able to carry out a premeditated and targeted act of terrorism against Black people – all while armed with an assault rifle fitted with a high-capacity magazine," Crump said in a statement to the media. "It’s an all-too familiar scenario, with the same tragic, but preventable ending. We will get answers for these families, and we will hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable.”

Attorney General James pledged to “hold gun manufacturers and gun distributors liable not just for what happened yesterday, but for what happens every day all across this nation." 

Staff writers Maki Becker, Caitlin Dewey, Jonathan Epstein, Andrew Galarneau, Janet Gramza, Jon Harris, Dan Herbeck, Patrick Lakamp, Lou Michel, Clevis Murray, Mary B. Pasciak, Mike Petro, Mark Sommer, Sandra Tan, Jay Tokasz, Stephen T. Watson and Jerry Zremski contributed to this report. 

Coverage of this story is being provided free to all readers. Please support our journalism and the newsroom providing this coverage by subscribing to The Buffalo News.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and New York Attorney General Letitia James address the media during a press conference about the mass shooting at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue

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