57 members of Buffalo police riot response team resign after shoving incident

57 members of Buffalo police riot response team resign after shoving incident

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LOCAL NIAGARA SQUARE CURFEW GEE

Police with batons and riot helmets arrive to clear Niagara Square of protestors as the curfew takes effect, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Less than 24 hours after a 75-year-old man was pushed to the ground outside City Hall by members of the Buffalo Police Department's Emergency Response Team and a video of the incident during a protest drew widespread condemnation, all 57 members of the team resigned from the unit.

The mass resignation came after members of the team that responds to riots and other crowd control situations, were suspended without pay. Two law enforcement sources confirmed the resignations.

The unit was clearing the area in Niagara Square at the emergency curfew, in effect as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which have roiled cities across the nation. During Thursday's demonstration, one officer is seen on a video, recorded by a WBFO reporter, pushing Martin Gugino of Amherst. Gugino fell to the ground, his head hitting the sidewalk, and was hospitalized.

[RELATED: Two Buffalo officers charged with felony assault for shoving protester]

The incident that precipitated the resignations drew attention around the world on social media and from traditional media outlets and renewed calls for reform in the Buffalo Police Department. The Erie County District Attorney's Office is investigating the incident and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo condemned it.

The Emergency Response Team members have not quit the police department, but have stepped down from the tactical unit, according to the sources. Spectrum News first reported the resignations on Twitter, along with WIVB-TV.

The resignations raise questions about how local law enforcement will be able to handle continuing protests at a time when some of the protests have turned violent and more protests are anticipated this weekend.

Saturday evening a woman who drove a car into the middle of protesting in Delaware Avenue was pulled from her car and beaten up, police said. Also a bail bonds van was set on fire and a man is accused of throwing a flaming object into City Hall later that night. Monday night, after a nonviolent march ended in front of the Northeast District police station on Bailey Avenue, a woman drove a car through a line of police in riot gear, running over a state trooper who suffered a shattered pelvis and broken leg.

"I can say that Buffalo will be safe this weekend," Mayor Byron Brown said at a news conference Friday evening. "We have a contingency plan."

Brown said protesters in the streets and residents in their home would be protected.

"My goal as mayor is to bring the city together during this difficult time, to let all of our residents living in every single neighborhood know that they are cared about, that they are protected, to let our peaceful protesters know that their voices are being heard, that we are listening, that we will work with them for real change on the issues of police brutality in the city of Buffalo racial injustice," he said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Friday afternoon that "if they've resigned, I'm exceptionally disappointed by it, because it indicates to me that they did not see anything wrong with the actions that occurred that night."

We asked the experts: Was that push warranted?

He also said he intended to find out what the protocol is for filling the void but did point out that a large contingent of State Police was in the area to assist.

He said he hopes that the more recent pattern of peaceful protests and goodwill from recent days has not been undone by Thursday night's actions.

"I hope it hasn't been destroyed because two officers acted," Poloncarz said. "The officer who pushed the individual down, I think he realized right away the gentleman was severely hurt, and it looked like he was reaching down to help him. And then his superior seemed to push him to go forward. That one action, I hope, does not destroy the efforts of so many to reach that agreement for all, that we can work together."

Since protesting and unrest began May 30 in Niagara Square, Buffalo's police force has been assisted by State Police, the Erie County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies.

John Evans, the president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said about plans for the weekend's protests: "I don't know what the city is going to do. They have not called me."

The union representing Buffalo police officers told its rank-and-file members Friday that the union would no longer pay for legal fees to defend police officers related to the protests. The union is upset with the treatment of the two officers who were suspended.

"Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square," Evans said. "It doesn't specify clear the square of men, 50 and under or 15 to 40. They were simply doing their job. I don't know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards."

Evans said the PBA stands "behind those officers 100%" and that the union would pay for any defense costs for the two officers, Evans said.

Evans said the two officers, whose names have circulated widely on social media, have been harassed.

Swift condemnation

The scene from Thursday's protest unfolds in video captured by reporter Mike Desmond from WBFO, which has been viewed more than 69 million times on YouTube as of Friday evening.

As police advance, Gugino approaches the officers with what appears to be a phone in his right hand and a helmet in his left. He appears to point to the baton of one of the officers as the word "Move" can be heard amid shouts in the background. The officer Gugino pointed to then pushes Gugino with his right hand and Gugino falls backward to the ground, where his head hits the sidewalk. One officer appears to reach down to check on him, but another officer pulls him back and the first officer continues walking. Other officers walk by and do not immediately come to Gugino's aid.

Protesters can be heard saying, "He's bleeding out of his ear," and, "Get a medic." When other officers stop to check on Gugino, another officer can he heard telling people to "get back" while a voice, apparently Desmond, is heard saying, "You better get an ambulance for him," and is told, "We have an EMT on scene."

Protester pushed to ground by police is longtime peace activist from Amherst

As the video became more widely shared on social media, so, too, did the spread of condemnation from celebrities and coverage in traditional media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and the Reuters news service.

"Buffalo" was trending on Twitter overnight. On Friday morning, "He's 75" was among the top trending topics in the United States.

Actor Kumail Nanjiani tweeted: "Can one person who watches this video tell me the violence by this cop was justified?"

"If they do grandpa like this ... YOU DONT HAVE A CHANCE," the rapper and actor Ice Cube said on Twitter.

The incident also got the attention of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who said during his daily briefing about the coronavirus pandemic that he had spoken by phone with Gugino.

Cuomo condemned the police who injured the Amherst resident and then “you just walk by the person when you see blood coming from his head?”

“It’s just fundamentally offensive and frightening. … How did we get to this place?" Cuomo said at the Capitol after showing a video of the incident.

Cuomo praised Brown for suspending the two officers and Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn for launching a probe of the incident that Cuomo said could become a criminal case.

Cuomo said the city should commence a process to fire the officers and for Flynn to “quickly” commence a probe “for possible criminal charges.”

The Democratic governor says he wants state lawmakers to pass what he called a “Say Their Name” criminal justice package next week; he said the name is a bow to people across the country who have been victims of police brutality, including George Floyd.

The bills include, without specifics from Cuomo, new transparency provisions of records pertaining to police disciplinary cases; bans on chokeholds by police; 911 calls by individuals based on race or other discriminatory factors; and to codify in state law the use of the state Attorney General to investigate cases of police killings.

Attorney General Letitia James called the video a "horrific display of abuse and lack of concern for New Yorkers by the Buffalo Police Department" and said her office supports the DA's investigation.

U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy offered "on behalf of the entire law enforcement community, [his] sincere best wishes to the injured gentleman."

The Buffalo Police Advisory Board called for policing policy reforms following the incident. The board noted that both Brown and Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood took immediate action against the officers by suspending them without pay.

"These steps are progress, but they do not go far enough," the committee said in a statement released Friday morning.

The recommended reforms include:

• Creating an independent, civilian, investigatory body with independent legal counsel.

• Codifying use-of-force policies: requiring de-escalation prior to use of force; requiring a warning before shooting; requiring another present officer to intervene; and mandating a comprehensive report of use of force.

• Adopting what's known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion "in order to assist citizens dealing with mental health, poverty, and substance abuse by preventing arrest and system involvement."

• Adopting the use of "stop tickets," which would provide residents "with basic information about the stop, the officer, and the reason for the stop."

News Staff Reporters Sandra Tan and Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

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