Two police officers seen in a viral video shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground in Buffalo, New York, were charged with second-degree assault on June 6. The officers, Aaron Torgalski, 39, and Robert McCabe, 32, have pleaded not guilty and have been released without bail, but if convicted, they could face a maximum of seven years in prison.
The charges represent the latest of a number of cases in which viral videos showing evidence of police violence have led to disciplinary action. As Catherine Kim noted for Vox, since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, countless videos have circulated on social media of officers beating, tasing, and violently arresting protesters — and in many of these cases, the officers have begun to face consequences.
In Chicago, the state attorney’s office has opened an investigation into a group of officers who were filmed swarming a car in a parking lot, breaking the car windows, and dragging people out. In Brooklyn, a police officer was suspended without pay after an officer pulled down the mask of a black protester and pepper sprayed him in the face.
What happened in Buffalo was one of the most graphic videos to come out of the current protests. On June 4, local NPR station WBFO tweeted a video showing a group of police officers walking toward an elderly man in the city’s Niagara Square while enforcing curfew. Two officers then push the man back, one using his baton, which causes him to stumble and hit his head on the sidewalk. Blood pours from his ear as dozens of police continue to walk past his unconscious body.
The video directly contradicted the Buffalo Police Department’s earlier statement that the man had been injured “when he tripped & fell,” a statement that neglected to mention any interaction with the police. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown released a statement later that night, writing that he was “deeply disturbed” by the video, and that the two officers who pushed the man down had been suspended without pay. Brown also noted the victim, Martin Gugino, was taken to the hospital in “stable but serious” condition.
Gugino is a community organizer and longtime member of People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo, whose deputy director, Harper S.E. Bishop, told the Washington Post, “Martin shows up for his people, our community, to dismantle systems of oppression. That’s what he was doing tonight at City Hall. He shouldn’t have been met with police violence for showing up and demanding accountability for the ongoing brutality and murder of Black lives.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the officers’ actions “utterly disgraceful,” while Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said in a press conference, “They’re not trained to shove a 75-year-old man with a baton and knock him to the ground.”
Despite public outcry, other police officers are standing by Torgalski and McCabe
Despite widespread condemnation from city and state officials and the general public, however, the entirety of Buffalo’s 57-person Emergency Response Team (ERT), of which Torgalski and McCabe were a part, “resigned in disgust” from the team after the two were suspended, “because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” said John Evans, the president of the BPD union. Though they did not quit their jobs, the members have refused to participate in the crowd control duties of the ERT. And at the courthouse on Saturday where Torgalski and McCabe were charged, dozens of people gathered outside to cheer, many wearing “blue lives matter” T-shirts.
#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 pic.twitter.com/ima8KxyoZP— Dave Greber (@DaveGreber4) June 6, 2020
The solidarity from fellow police officers is indicative of a growing divide between people calling for restrictions on police power and budgets and those who are staunchly supportive of the current system. “Defund the police” has become a rallying cry among protesters, who argue that fewer public dollars should be allocated to a historically racist institution that continuously harms people of color. Instead, they argue, taxpayer money should go toward social work and less militarized forms of community safety measures.
Cities around the country are now evaluating the effectiveness of their forces and some, like in Minneapolis, are calling for a dramatic restructuring of public safety services. Meanwhile, police unions and city mayors have, for the most part, defended current police department budgets. President Donald Trump has also tweeted that he wants “a great and well paid LAW ENFORCEMENT,” while campaigning on promises of “law and order.”
That divide is one that can be seen at the protests themselves: As New York Times Magazine writer Carvell Wallace argued, “in a demonstration against police brutality, police are not law enforcement, they’re counter protesters.” Though ostensibly there to prevent violence or looting, videos like the one in Buffalo have shown that in policing protests against them, police officers can’t be considered neutral parties. “They are treating protesters like the enemy, lashing out violently, using disproportionate force, and attacking people who pose no threat to them,” write Vox’s Catherine Kim and Anna North.
The irony here is that the biggest threat posed to police officers by unarmed protesters is their ability to film that officer doing something unlawful. The support the officers in Buffalo have received from their colleagues reflects a history of police standing by one another even through indefensible acts of violence — one also seen in the cases of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. But as recent arrests and suspensions have shown, as long as there’s video evidence and platforms on which to share it, the public will hold them accountable.