For 14 years, Cariol Holloman-Horne has held firm that she did the right thing when she tried to stop a fellow Buffalo cop who she says was choking a man he was trying to arrest.
Horne lost her job and also her full police pension. She's worked odd jobs, mostly recently as a truck driver. At times, she has lived out of her car.
She tried numerous times and through numerous avenues to try to get her pension and also pass laws to require police to intervene when another one is going too far.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and think one day someone’s going to listen to me,” she told The Buffalo News in 2012. “I may not recover financially. But I think one day somebody will listen.”
That day may have finally come.
The cellphone video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer set off a firestorm of outrage, not just at Derek Chauvin but also the three other police officers who are seen standing by and doing nothing to stop Chauvin.
Suddenly, Horne’s story has new resonance.
"It appears that Ms. Horne was a brave public servant who tried her best to bring justice to our community and who suffered dearly for those efforts," state Attorney General Letitia James wrote in July as she pressed the state to re-examine Horne’s pension. As a crowd of supporters gathered outside police headquarters in late June, they lauded her for doing what she believed was right. “Cariol Horne is the example of what heroism looks like,” local store owner Phylicia Dove said. “We stand proudly with this Black woman.”
Horne spent the summer at many of the demonstrations in Niagara Square, outside police stations and even in front of the mayor's house. She rallied protesters with a bullhorn while raising her fist defiantly into the air.
National news outlets seized on her story.
On June 16, she appeared on CNN wearing a T-shirt that read "George Floyd needed Cariol Horne."
“I don’t want any officer to go through what I have gone through in order to save someone’s life,” she told CNN.
On the morning of Nov. 1, 2006, years before cellphone videos and local police started wearing body cams, a postal worker flagged down a patrol officer to report an argument between a man and a woman at a two-unit house on Walden Avenue.
The woman was accusing her ex-boyfriend, David Neal Mack, then 54, who lived in the lower floor of the double, of stealing her Social Security check for $626.
Among the officers responding were Horne and Greg Kwiatkowski.
As officers tried to take Mack into custody, the arrest became violent. Police used pepper-spray inside the house, and Horne later testified that she helped other officers push him out of the house. She said officers “were struggling” with Mack in the driveway when, Horne said, she saw Kwiatkowski put Mack into a chokehold.
Witnesses and police told The Buffalo News at the time that Kwiatkowski and Horne were seen fighting, throwing punches at each other, in the driveway of Mack’s home.
“There were fisticuffs,” then-Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said. “She reportedly jumped on his back and she got punched in the face.”
Horne has maintained that she was trying stop Kwiatkowski from choking Mack.
Horne, 38 at the time, already had a fraught relationship with the police department. In 2000, after 12 years on the force, she was fired for the first time. Her disciplinary card shows that she was repeatedly marked down as AWOL. But she said her supervisor had inaccurately recorded her absences and in 2005, following an arbitration hearing, she was reinstated to her job.
Kwiatkowski, then 42 with 16 years on the job, had also been under scrutiny before. In 1998, a federal court jury cleared him and a second Buffalo police officer of brutality charges. Kwiatkowski later found himself part of another police brutality case.
By June 2007, a city court judge had dropped all criminal charges against Mack and Mack filed a notice of claim against the city, saying he was unlawfully arrested and injured.
Kwiatkowski was exonerated of departmental charges related to the incident.
Horne, who still faced departmental charges, remained on leave after the incident due to a shoulder injury and migraines, which she said were a result of the altercation.
Her case was reviewed and Gipson offered her a four-day suspension. Horne refused. She wanted her case to go to a hearing. By doing so, she was warned, she risked being fired.
When the hearing was scheduled in September 2007, she walked out, insisting that it be open to the public. Disciplinary hearings were traditionally held behind closed doors. But by then, Horne had a group of supporters who saw her as being persecuted for crossing the “blue line.”
In the meantime, she and Kwiatkowski filed lawsuits against each other.
A public hearing
Horne won the battle to have her hearing public. It was a first in the department’s history.
Mack testified. He said Kwiatkowski had him in a chokehold and another officer used brass knuckles to try to subdue him. He credited Horne with helping him.
“I couldn’t breathe until she intervened,” Mack said during the hearing.
Kwiatkowski testified, too. He denied punching Horne in the face and said that Mack was “fighting violently” when he arrived at the scene to assist other officers after receiving an “officer in trouble” call.
In May 2008, the hearing officer announced that he had found Horne guilty on 11 of 13 internal charges. In a 47-page report, he said Horne “created a substantial danger to the lives of all involved in the incident, including Mr. Mack. Her unwarranted use of physical force to intervene against Officer Kwiatkowski as he struggled with Mack could have had fatal consequences. It is difficult for this Hearing Officer to imagine how any Officer on the force, after Respondent's extreme lack of professionalism, could ever have any confidence that Respondent could be counted on to assist them in making a lawful arrest.”
The hearing officer recommended that she be fired – and she was. She had 19 years on the job, so she wouldn’t qualify to receive a full police pension, which requires 20 years. That would have been half her salary plus health benefits. She remains eligible for a partial state pension, according to the State Comptroller's office.
She sued again, this time with Mack, seeking $20 million from the city.
Horne continued to fight to get her job back, but a review by then Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark backed the police decision in her case.
State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski sided with the city in a court fight over whether the hearing was held legally.
In February 2011, Kwiatkowski won a defamation suit against Horne, who never showed up to court in the case. A judge ordered her to pay $65,000 in damages.
At that time, Kwiatkowski had just retired. The police lieutenant had been under investigation by Internal Affairs for two incidents: his alleged role in a fight that broke out at a bar after a police union awards dinner and for allegedly grabbing an officer by the neck during a dispute in police station briefing room.
A year later, Horne thought she might finally see vindication when Mack’s civil suit went to trial.
She told The News at the time that she was living in subsidized housing, relying on child support and food stamps. She said she was still suffering from the shoulder injury.
The jury cleared Kwiatkowski and other police officers in a five-to-one verdict. The only juror who sided with Mack was a Black female juror. The other five were white.
In 2014, Kwiatkowski and two other Buffalo police officers were indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on charges that they violated the rights of four teenagers on May 31, 2009. The teens were accused of firing a BB gun into a crowd in University Heights.
Kwiatkowski was accused of using excessive force against the young men.
News of the indictment prompted calls to revisit Horne’s firing.
Common Council President Darius Pridgen asked the city’s Law Department to look into her case again.
“I want to make sure the city did everything it could to investigate that situation,” Pridgen said.
City attorneys reported back that the Common Council had no authority to rehire her and that an exhaustive analysis of her work credits showed she was indeed a year short of 20.
In 2015, Mayor Byron Brown asked then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the state Civil Service Pension System to review her case yet again. Neither turned up anything that would change her situation. Brown then offered Horne a job with the city. She said no.
On the eve of the federal police brutality trial in 2016, Kwiatkowski pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and agreed to testify against the other two officers about what happened during the arrest of the four teenagers. He also admitted roughing up the young men.
The other two officers were acquitted at trial in 2018. Kwiatkowski was sentenced to four months in prison.
'A poignant moment'
Then came the death of George Floyd.
And people were outraged that there were three police officers at the scene who did nothing to stop Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin as Floyd died under his knee.
“Cariol did what those officers didn't do,” said Bishop Michael Badger, senior pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church, a longtime supporter of Horne’s. “You talk about a poignant moment. It's unbelievable that she finds herself here after so many years of struggling and just trying to survive."
National news outlets took notice of Horne’s story. She appeared on CNN with the chyron “Black cop fired after stopping white colleague’s chokehold." She was featured in the Washington Post with the headline "George Floyd died after officers didn’t step in. These police say they did — and paid a price." Her story was also featured on CBS This Morning.
Her GoFundMe campaign soon raised more than $160,000. And a proposal to create “Cariol’s Law,” which would require police officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, gained new traction.
On June 30, Horne relaunched her campaign for the law at a news conference staged at the entrance of the Buffalo police and fire headquarters buildings surrounding by several dozen supporters.
"We stand proudly with this mother," said Dove, the owner of Black Monarchy clothing store. "We stand proudly with this community activist.”
Mayor Brown, however, has taken issue with how Horne has portrayed her story.
“That was more than 12 years ago, and in that 12-year period of time, I think a different telling of history is happening from what happened at that time,” he said in June as he unveiled changes to the city’s policing policies.
Horne recently gained powerful new allies: She is represented by a legal team that includes Ronald Sullivan and Intisar Rabb of Harvard Law School. Sullivan and his team represented the family of Michael Brown, a Black teenager whose shooting death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked unrest there in 2014.
“Honored to now represent @CariolHorne – former Buffalo police officer terminated after she intervened when a fellow officer employed a chokehold against an unarmed black man,” he tweeted July 10.
The Common Council appears poised to enact at least part of Horne's proposal by making the duty to intervene a law and not just a police department policy, as it is now.
Horne doesn't want her name stripped from the proposal. She’s worried that while the reforms she has championed would become law, her name will be quietly dropped.
“#CariolsLaw should bear my name and anything less is unacceptable," she wrote on her Facebook page. "I WILL NOT BE ERASED."