Two Buffalo, New York, police officers have each been charged with second-degree assault for their roles in an incident that left a protester seriously injured.
Both pleaded not guilty to the charges, which are felonies due to the age of the victim.
A widely circulated video shows police shoving Martin Gugino, 75, before he falls backward to the ground, smacking his head and beginning to bleed from the ear, apparently unconscious.
Gugino was taken by ambulance to Erie County Medical Center in serious but stable condition.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood suspended Officers Robert McCabe, 39, and Aaron Torgalski, 32, without pay on Thursday night and ordered an internal investigation. In response to the disciplinary action, all 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team “resigned in disgust” from their spots in the crowd-control unit, John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told WGRZ Friday afternoon.
Graphic video captured by local media, which can be seen in the tweet below, shows Gugino walking up to officers in Buffalo’s Niagara Square as they begin to enforce the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. Two cops aggressively push Gugino, causing him to fall. His head hits the pavement with an audible thud. The officers stop to look while Gugino lies motionless, blood pooling by his ear, until a third officer steps in and motions for them to keep walking.
The department initially said Gugino “tripped and fell,” a description that does not accurately depict the encounter.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn called for reforms in a press conference immediately following the arraignments, saying that the “optics” of law enforcement’s handling of protesters have consequences. He then sought to preempt criticisms from those in law enforcement who might accuse him of simply responding to public pressure by pointing to the protesters he is also prosecuting for allegedly becoming agitators.
“When it comes to protecting this community, we need to put aside our differences and do our job, and make sure we do it properly. So I implore the rank and file in the Buffalo Police Department to think about the oath they took when they were sworn into the police department,” Flynn said.
“If you are mad at me, fine,” he said. “But come Monday morning, when we show up to work, we need to work together and do our jobs.”
Each officer faces a maximum penalty of seven years behind bars.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called the video “fundamentally offensive and frightening” during his regularly scheduled news conference Friday.
“You see that video, and it disturbs your basic sense of decency and humanity. ... Where was the threat?” he said. “It’s just fundamentally offensive and frightening. ... How did we get to this place?”
An attorney for Gugino said in a statement on Friday that his client “has been a longtime peaceful protester, human rights advocate and overall fan of the U.S. Constitution for many years.”
“At this time, Mr. Gugino is in serious but stable condition. He is alert and oriented. Mr. Gugino requests privacy for himself and his family as he recovers,” the statement read. “He appreciates all of the well wishes he has received and requests that any further protests continue to be peaceful.”
Police arrested five people in the otherwise peaceful demonstration in Buffalo on Thursday night, according to local news outlet WIVB. Four were blocking traffic, and a fifth was involved in a “skirmish” with the protesters.
Protesters around the world have taken to the streets since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The three other officers who were with Chauvin at the time ― Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng ― were arrested Wednesday and charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.