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We asked the experts: Was that push warranted?

We asked the experts: Was that push warranted?

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Lines of police in tactical gear stand in the road in front of City Hall in Niagara Square after clearing the square of the few protestors who remained as the curfew went into effect, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Educators on police tactics differed wildly Friday when asked about the shove from Buffalo police officers that sent 75-year-old Martin Gugino onto a City Hall sidewalk and led to their suspensions without pay.

"I'm sorry, it's unfortunate," said Maria Haberfeld, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who served in the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel National Police and has written many articles about police training, integrity and leadership.

"But from the standpoint of tactics," she said, "I am very disappointed that the officers were suspended – very, very disappointed."

Dale Willits, a police researcher and professor at Washington State University's Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said even if the push can be justified, it could have been avoided. Ultimately, the episode will undermine the police and further mar the public's view of them, he said.

"There were clearly methods of removing the person that didn't involve pushing them to the ground," Willits said.

In a video shot by a WBFO reporter and now being discussed around the country, Gugino tries to briefly engage one or more of the dozens of officers moving to clear Niagara Square of protesters for an 8 p.m. curfew Thursday.

Within seconds, he is pushed backward, lands face up on a sidewalk, and a pool of blood forms under his head. As the video spread on social media, public opinion came down squarely against the police.

Looking at the video, Haberfeld said the officers were in a line to move the crowd back, an established tactic that most police forces are trained to do. Then the lanky man now known to be Gugino appeared, and tried to talk to a few of them, slowing their progress.

An older person, however, can still be a threat, Haberfeld said when The Buffalo News sought her opinion Friday. Further, police had no way of knowing his motives at that moment, she said.

"Age in itself does not give you immunity," she said, adding that "anybody from a teenager to a senior citizen can potentially do harm."

Officers are trained in a "continuum of force" that can begin with simple requests, then commands and then physical force, starting with grips, for someone not following police direction. Officers can skip steps in the continuum depending on the situation, she said.

"It's very unfortunate that this individual did not comply, did not move back. It's very unfortunate that he fell on the ground and hit his head, and it looks horrible, granted. Any use of force looks horrible," she said.

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

In this case, the scene is compounded by the fact he is older and there's blood, she said. But she called the officers' moves justified based on their training and said police are going to be aware that their ranks are being harmed in protests around the country. In Las Vegas, for example, Officer Shay Kellin Mikalonis was critically injured days ago when shot as police tried to disperse a large crowd there. On Buffalo's Bailey Avenue late Monday, a vehicle hit three officers attempting to control a crowd.

As for the arrest and death of of George Floyd, which set the spark for the protests now raging in America's cities, Haberfeld was among the educators to quickly speak publicly against the actions of Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with murder.

"I do not know how it can be justified," she said Friday of Chauvin's decision to plant a knee on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. In other interviews, she said she had never seen such a restraint method in all her years in and around law enforcement.

Willits, an associate professor at Washington State, is currently researching race and policing and other law enforcement topics. When he looks at the video shot outside City Hall on Thursday evening, he comes to a different conclusion than Haberfeld reached.

"There are these incidents that are lawful but awful,'' Willits said. "That might fit within that realm there."

To him, the push looks like an overreaction, and the officers' suspensions appear justified.

"I think officers realize you do have to shift the reaction based on the state of the person. That person was in his 70s," Willits said.

One of the models of how to best police today invokes the concept of "procedural justice," Willits said. It has four planks: treating citizens with dignity and respect; exhibiting neutrality; showing trustworthy motives; and allowing a citizen to have a voice.

No one could say the victim was treated with dignity and respect, nor was he allowed to have a voice as he attempted to talk to some of the officers, Willits said.

"It seems that this is the type of video – that now is being spread worldwide, nationwide certainly – that hurts police and probably makes it more likely for them to see further protests and further resistance."

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