Fifty-seven members of the Buffalo Police Department resigned on Friday to protest the suspension of two officers shown on video shoving a 75-year-old protester to the ground, causing him to hit his head on the sidewalk and suffer a serious injury, officials said.
The footage, shot Thursday evening by local NPR affiliate WBFO, shows the man walking up to uniformed officers in Buffalo’s Niagara Square during an anti-police brutality demonstration over George Floyd’s death. The officers, who had begun enforcing curfew, yell what sounds like “move!” and “push him back!” One officer can be seen pushing the man with an outstretched arm, while another shoves a baton into him. A third officer appears to shove colleagues toward the man.
The man falls to the ground. His head whips backward onto the pavement, and then he lies motionless.
“He’s bleeding out of his ear!” someone yells, as blood pools beneath the man’s head.
The officers then keep walking, leaving the man on the ground, before two state police officers step in to render aid.
On Friday, the police department’s entire emergency response team resigned in protest of their colleagues’ suspension, according to several local news reports. The team was formed in 2016 to respond to civic unrest.
“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans told WGRZ.
The man, identified as Martin Gugino by the group People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo, was taken to a hospital after his fall and was in “stable but serious condition,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, D, said. Buffalo police spokesman Capt. Jeff Rinaldo said he believes the man’s injuries include a laceration and “possible concussion,” while Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said it was a “serious head injury.”
Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood launched an internal affairs investigation into the officers after seeing the video, Rinaldo said. He declined to identify the officers who were suspended without pay.
Video of the incident provoked widespread condemnation online, as police in cities across the country fall under intensifying scrutiny for using excessive force against peaceful protesters. Poloncarz said the incident “sickened me,” while New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, D, called the incident “fundamentally offensive and frightening.”
Cuomo said Friday that he had spoken with Gugino, and he praised the mayor for quickly suspending the two officers.
“I would say I think the city should pursue firing,” Cuomo said at a news conference. “And I think the district attorney should look at the situation for possible criminal charges. And I think that should be done on an expeditious basis.”
A Buffalo police statement initially said that a man was injured when he “tripped and fell” during “a skirmish involving protesters,” in which several people were arrested. That language only amplified the criticism, as the video soon showed it was false.
Rinaldo said the claim that the man “tripped” came from officers who were not directly involved and were standing behind the two officers who shoved the man. Rinaldo said that once the video surfaced, it was brought to Lockwood’s attention, leading to the officers’ immediate suspension.
Mayor Brown said he and Lockwood were “deeply disturbed” by what they saw.
“After days of peaceful protests and several meetings between myself, Police leadership and members of the community, tonight’s event is disheartening,” Brown said. “I hope to continue to build on the progress we have achieved as we work together to address racial injustice and inequity in the City of Buffalo. My thoughts are with the victim tonight.”
New York State Attorney General Letitia James said her office was aware of the video.
Harper S.E. Bishop, a Buffalo resident who is the deputy director of People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo, told The Washington Post that Gugino is a longtime member of the group and community organizer who works on issues like affordable housing and racial justice.
“Martin shows up for his people, our community, to dismantle systems of oppression,” Bishop said. “That’s what he was doing tonight at City Hall. He shouldn’t have been met with police violence for showing up and demanding accountability for the ongoing brutality and murder of black lives.”
Thursday marked the second time since last month that a viral video led to an internal affairs investigation of a Buffalo police officer. On May 10, an officer was filmed repeatedly punching a black man in the face during a traffic stop arrest, leading the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to open an investigation into the officer.
Nationwide, video footage has played a key role in exposing police abuses during the protests that ignited over Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis officer was captured pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck.
In Philadelphia on Wednesday, a Temple University student was released from jail on charges of assaulting a police officer during a protest after video emerged showing that a police officer was the one beating him in the head with a baton, while another used his knee to press the student’s face onto the pavement, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
A Salt Lake City police officer in riot gear was captured on video last week using his shield to knock down a man who was shuffling slowly with a cane, after ordering him to clear the sidewalk outside of a public library. He fell to the ground face-first. The police chief called the incident “inappropriate” and said it is under investigation, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last Sunday, an officer was suspended after shoving a black woman who was kneeling on the concrete behind him with her hands up. That incident inflamed an otherwise largely peaceful protest, as outraged demonstrators threw water bottles the Miami Herald reported. Police soon responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. One officer ended up striking a woman in the face with a rubber bullet, cracking her skull and leaving her bloodied and bruised about the face, the Herald reported.
As in the Fort Lauderdale case, police tactics have regularly turned peaceful protests into violent confrontations this week. Most infamously, federal officials in Washington, D.C., forcibly removed protesters Monday from Lafayette Square using pepper balls, batons and rubber bullets, sending hundreds running, crying from the chemical agents, so President Donald Trump could have a photo op outside St. John’s church.
After Thursday’s suspension of the two Buffalo officers, the New York Civil Liberties Union demanded that demonstrators be allowed to gather “without the threat of police brutality on the street tomorrow.”
“Police officers cannot continue to hide behind the lie that they are protecting and serving,” the NYCLU said in the statement. “City leaders need to take this as a wake-up call and seriously address the police violence during this week’s protests and the culture of impunity that led to this incident. There is no place for military-geared police to enforce curfew by inflicting violence on the very people they are supposed to protect.”