BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Buffalo Police Internal Affairs Monday opened an investigation into claims by a woman that an officer stopped her from shooting video of him by knocking her cell phone to the ground.
The woman told News 4 Investigates that she was inspired to come forward by the story of a recent alleged police brutality in Riverside.
In that case, a bystander recorded the alleged beating of John Willet on Ontario Street on April 19. The video allegedly shows Police Officer John Cirulli slapping and kicking the suspect. The man shooting the video told News 4 Investigates that the officer demanded that he destroy the video.
A federal investigation is underway.
The woman told her story – as long as we would protect her identify.
It raises the question: Do citizens have the right to video police while they are on the job?
“One of the officers came up to me demanded my phone and knocked my phone out of my hand as I was recording it,” she says.
The young woman who took this video says it happened on Chippewa Street near Delaware Avenue on March 16 following Buffalo’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
She says there was a disturbance in the street and police were involved in breaking up fights.
She tells News 4 Investigates that she was coming out of a bar and saw that a “female was slammed to the ground” as police were breaking up a fight. The woman says that’s when she started taking video with her cellphone camera.
“He knocked the phone out of my hand and stomped on it and he wouldn’t take his foot off my phone so I actually had to like push his foot off my phone in order to get my phone back,” she says.
“And then he started coming after me demanding that I hand over my phone and I wouldn’t. And then I kept going on and he kept following me and then he eventually stopped.”
She says her cellphone camera stopped working went it hit the ground, and did not capture the rest of her encounter with a Buffalo Police Officer who she claims told her he needed the phone for evidence.
The woman says the officer told her that after he knocked her phone to the ground and it went dead. She claims he told her he needed it for evidence but didn’t tell her why.
She also claims that he directed her to delete the video she was shooting.
“He said you’re going to have to delete that.”
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda urged the woman to file a complaint with police Internal Affairs. She has not done so.
Earlier this week, former U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Vacco, while addressing a claim by a bystander to the alleged Riverside police brutality that police demanded he delete the video he caught on tape on April 19, told News 4 that unless the phone was used in the commission of a crime – police don’t have the right to make demands.
“I cannot believe that there’s any justification to demand that you must delete an image on your cellphone,” says Vacco, a partner in Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, a Buffalo law firm.
It’s the recent case that a video recorded the alleged police brutality of John Willet that inspired the young woman to come forward to News 4.
She says she was frightened by the encounter.
“I was scared. The officer supposed to be protecting us. And for him to disrespect me like that was…it’s scary.”
Derenda declined to view or comment on this latest video because he must ultimately rule in Internal Affairs investigations. But he did speak generally about citizens taking video of police.
“The public can videotape police officers doing their duties as long as they’re in a public domain or on their property,” Derenda says.
Asked about police requests that citizens delete files or give up their phones, he added, “No they should not be deleting files, grabbing phones. No.”
Commissioner Derenda says if by chance a camera captured a crime and needed to be taken for evidence there are proper procedures in place for authorities to obtain evidence. And because social media has changed so dramatically in the last few years, the department is updating police training and materials to make sure that every officer is aware of the rules.