by Shayna Jacobs
Police in riot gear were marching across a mostly empty plaza in Buffalo when two officers shoved a lone 75-year-old man who stood in their way. He fell to the ground and hit his head on the concrete. Officers marched past him as he lay motionless and bleeding from the ear.
The city suspended the two officers after video of the incident spread around the world. Then, on Friday, the Buffalo Police Department’s entire riot-control team — 57 officers — quit the unit.
Not to protest their colleagues’ use of force. To protest the city for suspending them.
“These guys did nothing but do what they were ordered to do,” police union President John Evans said in a statement, referring to their directive to clear the plaza. “This is disgusting.”
The incident involving police responding to demonstrations in Buffalo is one of many caught on video in recent days displaying police riot tactics — the use of batons, rubber bullets, tear gas and shields to move people out of the way. Such violent interactions have been viewed by police as necessary to do their job, age-old approaches to dealing with unruly gatherings. But they also have fueled what began as a local outcry over a police killing in Minneapolis into a swelling national protest of police brutality.
In New York, officers clubbed nonviolent protesters several nights running. In Philadelphia, a high-ranking police official hit an unarmed protester in the head with a metal baton. In Erie, Pa., a woman sitting in front of police was hit with gas, then kicked over by an advancing officer.
Now, both police and protesters believe that a steady stream of new videos revealing the confrontations has brought about a turning point and a question: Are these the tactics police in the United States should be using?
These were scenes not seen so widely in the United States in decades, scenes that police training, recruitment and reform were intended to prevent: officers striking unarmed protesters, in the heart of American cities, carrying out orders.
Even among police leaders, there is a sense that these incidents — and, in some cases, misleading official accounts given before the videos emerged — could do lasting damage to the image of American police, most of whom have never been involved in violent encounters with anyone.
“We certainly, as a profession, have been diminished by events that have been witnessed on video over the course of the last couple of weeks,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, a labor union. “And the burden is on us to reestablish and build a relationship with the community. We can’t do our job without the community. So the burden is on us going forward.”
The attention to policing is hauntingly familiar. After Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the nation focused on whether police departments had become overmilitarized. Across the country, policymakers debated and often enacted new training protocols aimed at de-escalating interactions between police and the public.
For longtime advocates against police brutality, the recent videos have provided a sense that — finally — the country could see what they already knew: Brutal tactics are still in use.
“I don’t know if ‘vindicated’ is the right word. I do feel like my words are resonating with people more than they did before, with a more diverse group of people than before,” said Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother. “Even friends of mine who are different races are saying: ‘Oh, I see it now. I’m sorry. I wish I would have aligned myself with you then.’ ”
Catherine Lhamon, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal agency, said the violence we’re seeing is now more accessible because of cellphones.
“I’m not sure that the excessive force that we are witnessing right now is in fact more frequent than it was in the past,” said Lhamon, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. She said she was heartened that so many people have joined protests nationwide, but said, “We should have been alarmed before we were able to witness it, too.”
A new ABC News/Ipsos poll shows a striking change in public opinion from the time of Brown’s death. In 2014, 43 percent of Americans saw his killing as a sign of broader problems in how police treat African Americans. After the death of George Floyd — the Minneapolis man who stopped breathing after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes — the figure is now 74 percent.
Since the protests began in Minneapolis last week, there have been demonstrations in hundreds of cities and towns. The vast majority have been peaceful, but in some cases there have been looting, vandalism and attacks on police. In several cases, officers have been shot or hit with cars. In others, officers and police vehicles have been pelted with water bottles, rocks or molotov cocktails.
“I’ve been in law enforcement 43 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad. And I certainly understand the anger and frustration out there. But I’ve never seen this much violence,” said Steven Casstevens, the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But, Casstevens said, some officers’ actions now risk tainting public views of all police. “No matter how bad the situation is, we have to be the professionals out there. We expect that.”
Charles H. Ramsey, a former police chief in Washington and Philadelphia, said he believes some of the incidents could have been prevented with better management by police leaders.
“It’s hard to be on your feet for that long. It’s hard to have people screaming at you for that long. It’s hard to keep dodging bricks and water bottles,” Ramsey said. He said officers should be rotated off the line regularly — and taken out early if they are losing their cool. “Supervisors need to be paying attention, looking for who may be getting a little antsy.”
The scale of the use of force is illustrated vividly on Twitter, in postings by Durham, N.C., lawyer T. Greg Doucette. He began collecting videos of police use of force from Minneapolis, numbering them and connecting them so readers could see that it wasn’t just one police officer or one time.
He started with 10. Then the list grew, with videos from cities all over the country.
“It’s the brazenness of it,” Doucette said, explaining what strikes him about the videos. “It’s weird to see it so often, in so many places, all just within the past week. And it’s all on camera, it’s not like they don’t know they’re being recorded. . . . They’re doing it anyway.”
“I’ve always been cynical. Apparently, not cynical enough,” he said in an interview Friday after he posted video No. 310.
In Philadelphia on Friday, a high-ranking police officer was taken off street duty after videos emerged of him beating protesters this week.
A video widely circulated on social media — No. 294 on Doucette’s list — shows the officer striking a protester in the head with his baton Monday, and another officer holding the man’s head to the ground with his knee. The victim, 21-year-old college student Evan Gorski, was charged with assaulting a police officer. He was released Wednesday after prosecutors reviewed the video.
Gorski was hospitalized and required staples in the back of his head, said his lawyer, Jonathan Fineberg.
“He is home now and trying to understand why this happened,” he said. Fineberg is collecting evidence to file a lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department. “I’m deeply concerned about what appears to be brazen misconduct. . . . This raises in my mind concern about this officer’s history. If you act this way in front of so many people, it tells me that you’re used to getting away with it.”
That same officer appears to have been filmed again beating a protester Tuesday — two incidents of many drawing rebuke for aggressive policing in Philadelphia this week, including multiple incidents of tear gassing protesters, and being slow to respond when a group of white vigilantes “patrolled” a police precinct armed with bats and attacked residents.
In a news conference Friday afternoon, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said her department received several videos and photographs of police conduct at the protests this week. “Some of the images are disturbing,” she said. “I am deeply concerned.”
She said there are “several concurrent internal affairs investigations underway.”
On Friday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (D) said he was charging the officer who hit Gorki, Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna, with aggravated assault.
Attempts to reach Bologna were unsuccessful Friday night.
In Los Angeles, another video posted online showed police officers with batons striking protesters during a daytime demonstration in the city’s Fairfax district on May 30. The protesters in the video appeared nonviolent.
Asked to comment on the matter, Los Angeles police officials issued a statement to the local ABC station that did not refer to any specific confrontation.
“Protests, marches and demonstrations over the last several days have been often dynamic and at times dangerous situations for both officers and demonstrators,” the statement said. In a separate incident Tuesday, police fired a nonlethal round that struck a homeless man in a wheelchair, leaving him bleeding heavily from his forehead, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Videos showed police in New York hitting demonstrators with batons in several locations over the past few days. One of those struck was Huascar Benoit, 21, who said he was peacefully protesting in Brooklyn when a police officer hit him with a baton, fracturing bones in his face, injuries that might require surgery.
The lead-up to the blow was captured on video: Benoit’s video shows officers in riot gear charging toward him. Another video captured the aftermath: Benoit slumped on the sidewalk, bloodied and disoriented. At one point, he spits out blood.
He felt “like half of my face was missing,” he said. “All I felt was blood dripping down.”
Benoit said that his glasses were broken during the altercation and that he believes his injuries might have been more severe had he not been wearing them.
Benoit is represented by an attorney, Paul Prestia, who filed a complaint with a city police review board. He said they do not know the names of the officers involved. “The flagrant, unprovoked attacks by New York City police officers on peaceful protesters like Mr. Benoit cannot be tolerated,” he said, adding that he finds it “ironic that people in our city who are peacefully protesting police brutality are being brutalized by police.”
The police review board has received 633 grievances in the past week, officials said. By comparison, 533 complaints were filed for the entire month of April, the most recent data publicly available.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea have vowed to investigate all allegations of improper police action reported during the protests. Some could result in disciplinary actions against the officers, officials have said.
In Benoit’s case, a police spokeswoman said that officials were aware of the video and that the incident was under internal review. She declined to comment further.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and city police commanders said Friday they continue to investigate a video that shows officers in that city repeatedly striking two women with batons. The incident is believed to have occurred Sunday, when the city was struggling to confront days of unrest that prompted an 8 p.m. curfew.
In a video shot by WISH-TV, several Indianapolis officers arrive on the scene to aid officers already there. A white officer grips a black woman near her chest with his left hand, but she breaks free. One officer shoots her with what appears to be pepper balls. Two other officers hit her with batons as she falls to the ground. A white woman standing nearby yells: “Why her?” An officer shoves that woman to the ground and handcuffs her.
Indianapolis Police Chief Randal Taylor said four officers have been reassigned pending the outcome of an internal investigation, which is expected to be completed next week. Police said they have not been able to locate the woman to interview her.
This week, some cities and states already have changed their policies for tracking and limiting police use of force. The city of Minneapolis proposed banning police from putting arrestees in chokeholds and requiring officers to try to stop any colleague who is using improper force. In Philadelphia, the police ordered officers to report any use of force via radio immediately after an incident, rather than filing a paper report after the fact, according to a memo obtained by news outlets WHYY and Billy Penn.
A group of about 50 protesters gathered in Buffalo on Friday at the place where the 75-year-old man fell after being shoved by police. It was a symbol of the multiplying nature of these protests: A spot that had been utterly unremarkable a day earlier was now a center of a new outrage.
“This is not going to stop,” said Marina Akaic, one of the marchers. “You want us to go home, but you’re not hearing us.”
Jacobs reported from New York. Tim Craig and Emily Guskin in Washington, Justin Sondel in Buffalo, Maura Ewing in Philadelphia, Miranda Green in Los Angeles, and Adam Wren in Indianapolis contributed to this report.