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Colleagues unsurprised that retired police officer Aaron Salter gave his life protecting others at Tops Market

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Aaron Salter

Retired Buffalo Police Officer Aaron Salter, left, is seen on patrol in 2009. Salter was among those killed in Saturday's shooting.

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Aaron Salter may have retired from the Buffalo Police Department in 2018, but his colleagues would say he never stopped being a cop. And that's how he should be remembered.

Salter, 55, was the security guard at the Tops Market on Saturday when the gunman began killing one person after another. He didn't hesitate to pull out his weapon and confront the shooter even though it was obvious that the man was protected with heavy tactical gear and better armed.

Even though at least one of Salter's bullets struck the gunman, the assailant's armor plating protected him, allowing him to return Salter's fire and kill him.

"It's not surprising to me, at all, that he did what he did yesterday," said retired Lt. Steven Malkowski, who previously served as Salter's supervisor when they both worked in the Buffalo Police Department's Traffic Division. "Even though you leave the job, the job doesn't leave you. I know he was thinking about, something was going wrong here. People's lives were in danger, and he was probably the only person who was in there that could help and save people." 

Police Officer Juan Phillips, who knew Salter as a friend and former colleague, recalled Salter came from a long established family, with many who were artists. Salter himself was a musician who played bass, he said.

Like Malkowski, Phillips wasn't surprised at Salter's bravery.

"An officer takes an oath," he said. "It just doesn't stop when you are retired. It doesn't stop at the end of an eight-hour tour." 

Salter, a family man with children, joined the police academy shortly out of high school and had been with the Buffalo Police Department since the late 1980s, Malkowski said.

Outgoing and friendly, Salter worked in the Traffic Control Division for years, working with other officers to handle traffic at special events, like at KeyBank Center or the Bisons stadium. He was also part of the team who would work special events like races and charity walks.

Salter graduated from Hutchinson Technical High School in 1984, according to friends. He also worked as a substitute teacher in Buffalo Public Schools from 2006 to 2011, according to the Buffalo school district.

It's also possible that he worked at the Tops supermarket as an off-duty security guard for many years, because it's common for police officers to take side jobs even while they are active-duty officers.

What his friends and colleagues remember most about Salter is his interest as an amateur scientist to create the world's first car engine that could run on water. The engine would break down water, separating the oxygen and hydrogen molecules so that they would be used to power the vehicle. He even had detailed drawings of his invention.

"He was very passionate about this," Malkowski said. "He was trying to contact people who could help him with production on this. I'm not a mechanical guy, but he had it all laid out."

Phillips had similar recollections about Salter's plans to create an alternative to gasoline.

"We would talk about how the garage was converted into a semi-lab," Phillips said. 

While Salter may have considered himself a research scientist at heart, to everyone else, he was simply a good cop.

"Aaron was never a bad guy," Malkowski said. "You hear stories about some coppers. They’re not the best police officers, but I never heard anything like that about Aaron."

Buffalo Police Chief Joseph Gramaglia hailed Salter a hero Saturday for his intervention and called him a "beloved security guard" by the people who knew him at the store.

Malkowski said that even though Salter wasn't technically a cop on the day he confronted the gunman, he behaved like a police officer in every way that mattered and should receive the same kind of formal funeral as any active officer killed in the line of duty.

He said he doesn't know if this is legally allowable, but he has reached out to multiple city leaders to see whether Salter would be retroactively reinstated as an officer for one day so that he gets the recognition he deserves.

Buffalo Common Council Member David Rivera, who retired as a Buffalo police officer after 25 years in 2007, pledged to look into the matter when contacted by The Buffalo News. That will require contacting not just the city's Law Department, but the State Comptroller's Office, which handles police pensions.

"He should have all the honors," Rivera said. "If it's allowed and the council is willing, I can't imagine there's any circumstances where we wouldn't do it."

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Reporter

I use the Erie County government beat to find issues and stories that tell us something important about how we live. An alumna of the Columbia Journalism School and Buffalo News staff reporter since 2000, I can be reached at stan@buffnews.com

Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Related to this story

The last heroic moments of Aaron Wallace Salter Jr.'s life saved others. The rampage at the Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue on May 14 that left 10 dead could have been even worse had the Black security guard not tried to stop the racially motivated killer, officials say.

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