Two Buffalo police officers were charged with assault on Saturday, prosecutors said, after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old protester in recent demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, who surrendered Saturday morning, pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault. They were released without bail.
As hundreds of thousands march across the country, police in numerous US cities have faced condemnation for their crackdowns on demonstrations, including punching, kicking, teargassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters.
McCabe, 32, and Torgalski, 39, “crossed a line” when they shoved the man down hard enough for him to fall backward and hit his head on the sidewalk, said John Flynn, the Erie county district attorney, at a news conference, calling the victim “a harmless 75-year-old man” .
The officers had been suspended without pay Friday after a TV crew captured the confrontation the night before. If convicted of the felony assault charge, they face up to seven years in prison.
Police officers in Buffalo, however, have stood by their colleagues. On Saturday a crowd of off-duty officers, firefighters and others gathered outside the courthouse in a show of support for the accused officers and cheered when they were released.
“It was tremendous, tremendous to see,” John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told WIVB-TV. “I just think it’s a strong indication of the outrage, basically, over this travesty.”
On Friday, 57 officers, comprising the entire Buffalo police department (BDP) emergency response team, resigned from the team in what a union boss described as a show of support. The resigning officers did not leave their jobs altogether.
McCabe’s lawyer, Tom Burton, said after the arraignment that prosecutors didn’t have grounds to bring felony charges. He said his client was a decorated military veteran with a clean record as a police officer.
“Nobody started out their day intending to hurt this fellow,” Burton said. He added that if the victim had followed commands to back off, “none of this would have happened”.
The footage shows the man, identified as Martin Gugino, a longtime activist, approaching a line of helmeted officers holding batons as they cleared demonstrators from Niagara Square around the time of an 8pm 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.
The video sparked outrage online as demonstrators take to cities across the country to protest racial injustice sparked by the death of Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
“I think there was criminal liability, from what I saw on the video,” said Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, at a briefing on Saturday. “I think what the mayor did and the district attorney did was right, and I applaud them for acting as quickly as they did.”
“What we saw was horrendous and disgusting, and I believe, illegal,” he added.