Two police officers who knocked over a 75-year-old man at a protest in Buffalo, New York, were charged Saturday morning with second-degree assault, a felony due to the man's older age.
The officers, Aaron Torgalski, 39, and Robert McCabe, 32, both pleaded not guilty and remain suspended without pay. If convicted, they could be charged with a maximum of seven years in prison.
Dozens of people, many in police uniforms and “Blue Lives Matter” flag T-shirts, crowded outside the courthouse Saturday morning. They erupted in cheers when the two officers left the building after being released on their own recognizance.
#UPDATE: Cheers erupt as suspended Buffalo police officers Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski leave the @DAErieCountyNY office after being arraigned on one count each of second degree assault. @news4buffalo
In video that was captured by local NPR station WBFO, dozens of officers in riot gear were seen clearing out Niagara Square to enforce the city's curfew on Thursday. The 75-year-old man, a peace activist named Martin Gugino, can be seen walking up to the two officers.
Officers can be heard yelling "Move!" at the man, and then "Push him back!"
The two officers then shove him, one using his baton to do so. Gugino stumbles backward and falls on the sidewalk, his head hitting the pavement with an audible crack. He is then seen lying on the ground completely still, blood pouring from his ear.
The officer with the baton can then be seen starting to kneel down toward Gugino, but another officer pulls him back up by his vest and pushes him to continue walking with the rest of the police.
Just about an hour ago, police officers shove man in Niagara Square to the ground (WARNING: Graphic). Video from: @MikeDesmondWBFO
Gugino was treated at the hospital for a head injury, loss of consciousness, and bleeding from the right ear, and "remains hospitalized in critical condition," the Erie County District Attorney's office said in a press release.
A police spokesperson initially told local ABC affiliate WKBW that the man was injured when he "tripped & fell," not mentioning any officers' roles in the incident, despite video clearly showing they pushed him.
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a statement later on Thursday that officers knocked the man down. The man was in serious, but stable condition at a hospital, Brown added. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted Friday that he was "alert and oriented" at the Erie County Medical Center.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn announced the charges Saturday against the officers, saying their actions clearly "cross[ed] a line."
In his announcement, Flynn defended the police as a whole, saying, “The vast majority of … law enforcement officers are honorable, professional, and show up each and every day to do their job and protect me and you.
“There may be some who say I’m choosing sides here by arresting and prosecuting these police officers, and I say that’s ridiculous," he said. "I’m not choosing sides, I’m prosecuting 39 protesters.”
This incident is wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful. I've spoken with Buffalo @MayorByronBrown and we agree that the officers involved should be immediately suspended pending a formal investigation. Police Officers must enforce — NOT ABUSE — the law. https://t.co/EYIbTlXnPt
In a press conference on Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo showed the video of the incident and said watching it made him feel "sick to my stomach."
"It disturbs your basic sense of decency and humanity," Cuomo said. "Why? Why was that necessary? Where was the threat?"
Cuomo said he'd spoken on the phone with Gugino, whom the governor said "thankfully is alive."
He said watching a large crowd of police just walk by the man's motionless body on the ground was "fundamentally offensive and frightening." Even so, he praised the police force, saying "99.9%" of cops are good and that he has "total respect for the occupation and the people who do it."
Cuomo praised Mayor Brown for swiftly suspending the officers, and said he believes the city should pursue firing the officers and that the district attorney should look into pressing criminal charges.
Following the officers' arraignment on Saturday, Cuomo said he thinks "what the mayor did and what the district attorney did was right and I applaud them for acting as quickly as they did."