A look back at abuse of power by police in WNY

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Federal investigators are now looking into the case of possible police brutality caught on cell phone video.

They must determine if 22-year-old John Willet’s civil rights were violated. Six Buffalo Police officers have been put on administrative leave.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western New York region has a track record in prosecuting cases involving excessive force. Since William Hochul became U.S. Attorney in 2010, his Buffalo office has successfully prosecuted five police officers and deputies who abused their power.

“When it comes to violence,” he says, “we take a zero tolerance when it comes to crossing that line.”

If uniformed Buffalo Police officers did cross the line in the handling of Willet’s arrest on April 19, they will be subject to federal prosecution. The U.S. Attorney says the public expects a full investigation.

“It would completely destroy the confidence of the public if they thought that police officers could get away with hurting somebody, or with beating somebody, or with arresting somebody with less than probable cause.”

Investigators from his office and the FBI, the lead federal agency in the case, must determine whether or not what is depicted on the video is accurate, and whether it crosses the line. The video shows Willet being slapped and kicked while restrained in handcuffs and on the ground. Several officers were on the scene at the time.

Willet had been chased down after running from his car during a traffic stop. He admitted in a News 4 interview with Luke Moretti to having drugs in his possession.

Looking back at cases of police abuse during the past few years, City of Tonawanda Police Captain James Litz pleaded guilty to choking
a man in handcuffs while he was sitting in back of a police car. Litz received two years probation but his wife Cindy, who had been the police chief, resigned.

In the case of West Seneca Police Officer Sean Kelley, he pleaded guilty to choking a man who may have said something insulting while Kelley was dining with his wife at a restaurant. Kelley had even called two officers to come to the restaurant.

Hochul recalls, “As soon as they arrived Kelley got up, put the victim in a choke hold, dragged him outside, and caused him substantial pain.”

Disgraced Niagara Falls police officer Ryan Warme had ordered a woman out of her parked car and then repeatedly groped her. Three years later he aided drug dealers while he was on duty, and was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.

There were also two cases involving deputies at the Erie County Holding Center. Thomas Thompson deprived the rights of an inmate by ordering him to be punched in the stomach because he wouldn’t cooperate.

Deputy Josephine Cutolo was convicted of approaching an inmate in handcuffs and activating a chemical spray in his face.

After citing these cases, Hochul reflected that “absolute power could corrupt, particularly in the hands of somebody who is not appropriate for the job. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

He says that in this most recent case, if Buffalo Police officers crossed the line and used unnecessary force, his office is “ready, willing, and able…to ensure that justice is done for the victims and the entire community.”

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