Man who recorded alleged police brutality says he was told to delete evidence

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A cell phone video shows 22-year-old John Willet on the ground being arrested by Buffalo Police a week ago Saturday. As Willet describes in an interview with News 4 Investigates: “Hit, hit, hit, hit from that officer over here.”

Now News 4 is talking to the man who captured these images.

“He knocked him down. I was like, I know there’s going to be more than this. So, that’s when I started recording it.”

In the video, you can see an officer slapping, then kicking, then once again slapping Willet while he’s on the ground handcuffed.

RELATED | See a full interview with John Willet here

Sources tell News 4 Investigates that police believe the officer seen in the video striking Willet is Officer John Cirulli.

In a new development, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda late Tuesday suspended one police officer without pay.  Sources say that officer is John Cirulli. Five others remain on administrative leave as the investigation continues.

A spokesman for the police union, Buffalo Police Benevolent Association declined comment until after completion of ongoing investigations by Buffalo Police Internal Affairs, the Erie County district attorney and the United States attorney.

RELATED | The U.S. Attorney has prosecuted a number of abuse of power cases involving police. He says he’s ready to tackle this one too, should it come to that

Fearing the possibility of a reprisal, the man behind this video recording asked that his identity be protected. He tells News 4 Investigates that he saw Willet surrendering to police in the area of Philadelphia and Ontario Streets.

“The cop just came and pushed him. He didn’t say a word. He just knocked him down,” the man says.

That’s when he began recording video. At one point he says one of the officers noticed him taking pictures.

“One cop saw me. He taps his friend on the shoulder and he pointed at me. So, I knew they were going to come to me.”

He says he quickly switched phones with a friend knowing police were going to ask about the video.

He says one of the officers – the same one seen on the video slapping and kicking Willet – came over to him and confronted him about the video.

“He told me give me your phone, or delete the video or I’m going to take your phone as evidence.”

The man says he asked the officer if it was illegal for him to record. He says the officer did not answer the question.

“He says just delete it. I’m like okay. I grabbed my friend’s phone and I deleted it. And I showed it to him. He said thank you very much. He checked it to make sure it was gone. He said thank you very much and he left.”

The man’s story is the latest development in the controversial video, which went viral on Sunday after it was posted on YouTube. News 4 Investigates had previously obtained the video from other sources and was the first to air an interview with Willet on Monday.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Derenda Monday ordered six officers off the street and referred the incident to internal affairs to investigate.

News 4 confirmed that Ciruilli was one of the suspended officers. News 4 is withholding the names of the other five at this time. The court documents actually list seven officers involved in the arrest.

Willet told News 4 that he was driving down the street when police pulled up alongside of him. He says the police vehicle was unmarked, and that initially he did not know who it was.

Willet says, “I got nervous. I didn’t know who it was obviously. Hopefully the police, but I’m just trying to get away from it all.”

According to a police complaint, Willet was traveling at a high rate of speed, and that they were trying to get him to slow down. They say Willet bailed out of the car and started running. Willet admits that he ran from police, but says he eventually stopped and gave up.

Willet says, “I put my hands up and that’s when I got the first swing to my face. I surrendered. I stopped. I put my hands up. It was no more point to run.”

The video, taken by a young man walking toward the incident, picks up with police trying to take Willet into custody. At one point on the tape, Willet is in handcuffs, face down on the ground.

Former United States Attorney and State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco has prosecuted his share of cases.

He says unless the phone was used in the commission of a crime he doesn’t see any justification for police to make that demand.

“The fact of the matter is that the request to turn over the phone or delete the images is clear evidence in my view that the requesting officer was attempting to cover up his conduct,” Vacco says.

What’s more, Vacco says he thinks that such a demand could be used as evidence in a criminal investigation – if it’s determined that excessive force was used.

“I think the circumstantial evidence of going up to the second young man, and demanding the phone or the deletion of the images is strong circumstantial evidence indicating his consciousness of guilt,” says Vacco, a partner in the firm, Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman.

Officials said the video shooter’s allegations will become part of the city and federal investigations.

“All aspects of the incident are under investigation,” said Michael DeGeorge, police spokesman.

“All facts are going to be full considered by this office,” said U.S. Attorney William Hochul. “We’re not prejudging anything. It’s a fact to be considered along with all of the facts.”

 

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