Dozens of Buffalo police officers stepped down from the department’s crowd control unit Friday, objecting to the suspensions of two fellow officers in the shoving of a 75-year-old protester who fell and cracked his head.
Prosecutors were investigating the encounter captured by a TV crew Thursday night near the conclusion of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The footage shows a man identified as Martin Gugino approaching a line of helmeted officers holding batons as they clear demonstrators from Niagara Square around the time of an 8 p.m. curfew.
Two officers push Gugino backward, and he hits his head on the pavement. Blood spills as officers walk past. One officer leans down to check on the injured man before another officer urges the colleague to keep walking.
“Why? Why was that necessary? Where was the threat?” asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo at his daily briefing Friday. The governor said he spoke to Gugino, who had been hospitalized in serious condition. “It’s just fundamentally offensive and frightening. How did we get to this place?”
The police commissioner suspended two police officers without pay Friday, Mayor Byron Brown said.
In response, 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s emergency response team quit the unit “in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” said John Evans, Police Benevolent Association president, according to WGRZ.
The resigning officers did not leave their jobs altogether.
Gugino and the officers all appear to be white, but details of their backgrounds were not released.
Late Friday, the New York City Police Department announced the suspension of two other officers, including one seen on video shoving a much smaller, female protester who was hurled back and hit her head on the pavement.
The Buffalo confrontation raised concerns about more possible flare-ups in a city where, earlier this week, two officers enforcing a curfew were injured by an SUV that plowed into a large group of officers who had begun swinging batons and using police dogs to enforce the curfew.
Things looked to have calmed somewhat Friday evening, as a large group of about 300 protesters marched uptown peacefully but after the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, accompanied by two police cars and a police helicopter.
Brown said contingency plans are in place “ensure public safety.” Additional state troopers will be in the city through the weekend to assist Buffalo police, according to a state police spokesman. And Brown said they are working with other agencies.
“I want people out in our community to know that people peacefully protesting will be protected,” Brown said at a news conference Friday.
Protests are expected to continue nationwide over the death of Floyd — a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck for several minutes.
Gugino was hospitalized and was “alert and oriented,” according to a Friday morning tweet by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Poloncarz at a briefing later in the day wished Gugino a “speedy recovery” and said the encounter “created a black mark, a stain on the city of Buffalo.”
The district attorney’s office “continues to investigate the incident,” officials said in a news release.
Gugino is a retiree who lives by himself in the area, say friends who describe him as a veteran peace activist driven by his faith and a desire for social justice. He is involved with the Western New York Peace Center and Latin American Solidarity Committee, said Vicki Ross, the center’s executive director.
“I can assure you, Martin is a peaceable person,” Ross said. “There is no way that he was doing anything to accost or hurt. He made a judgment to stay out after the curfew because he feels that our civil liberties are so in danger, which they most certainly are.”
His Twitter timeline includes tweets and retweets supportive of progressive causes and critical of police.
Ross said Gugino has been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Martin was standing there looking at these young cops in the eye,” Mark Colville of the Amistad Catholic Worker said of his longtime friend.
Buffalo police initially said in a statement that a person “was injured when he tripped & fell,” WIVB-TV reported, but Capt. Jeff Rinaldo later told the TV station an internal investigation was opened. Police later apologized and said they were “working with incomplete details during what was a very fast-moving and fluid situation.”
The office of state Attorney General Letitia James tweeted that officials there were aware of the video.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the source of the video was WBFO, not WFBO.