Two Buffalo cops were arraigned on Saturday on one count each of assault in the second degree, after they allegedly shoved a 75-year-old demonstrator during anti-police brutality protests.
Martin Gugino, a longtime peace activist in the upstate New York city, hit his head on the pavement and was left on the ground as blood pooled around his head on Thursday evening. He remained in hospital in a serious but stable condition on Saturday.
Initially, city officials claimed Gugino had tripped and fell. However, a video surfaced showing riot police, who were clearing Niagara Square at the time, clearly pushing Gugino over and walking by his motionless body. The video had been viewed 78 million times by Saturday.
When the two officers, Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe, were suspended without pay on Friday, all 57 officers in the department’s Emergency Response Team quit the elite unit in protest.
Hundreds of Buffalo police officers showed up to the courthouse to back the pair on Saturday, after the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association reportedly circulated text messages drumming up support. Police and other supporters reportedly cheered when one of the officers exited the courthouse.
Some supporters wore “We Back The Blue” t-shirts and held up umbrellas to block news cameras attempting to show the pro-police protesters.
Torgalski, 39, and McCabe, 32, both pleaded not guilty to a class D felony and were both released on recognizance after brief virtual appearances in Buffalo City Court.
Shortly after, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said in a press conference that the two officers “crossed the line” and “violated the law.” He cited a New York State law which says if a victim is 65 or older, and is assaulted by someone at least 10 years younger, a felony can be charged.
Flynn added that the officers could have arrested Gugino if he was committing a crime. “You arrest him. You don’t take a baton and shove him, along with the officer next to him... You properly arrest him, if he was committing a crime.”
He denied any suggestions of unfairly targeting police, pointing out that his office had prosecuted 39 “protesters that became agitators” as well.
The city’s black mayor, though, stood by the police officers, saying he had not asked for them to be fired, and it was very important that they “know they are getting due process.”
Byron Brown also argued that the 75-year-old man was an “agitator” who had been asked to leave previously.
“What we were informed of is that that individual was an agitator,” Brown said. “He was trying to spark up the crowd of people. Those people were there into the darkness. Our concern is when it gets dark, there is a potential for violence.”
John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said the officers were following orders to clear the square of all people, regardless of age. “They were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards,” he told The Buffalo News on Friday.
However, Erie County Executive Marc Poloncarz said Friday he was “exceptionally disappointed” by the mass resignation. “It indicates to me that they did not see anything wrong with the actions last night,” he said at a press conference.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the video made him nauseous and he supported a criminal investigation by the Erie County District Attorney.
“What we saw was horrendous, disgusting and, I believe, illegal,” Cuomo, a former attorney general, said Saturday.