BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Thousands of young people flock to Buffalo’s Chippewa District on Friday and Saturday nights. The lure of bands, bars and booze transforms the area into a melting pot of city and suburban revelers.
And, a beefed up police presence.
“We have a detail every weekend up on Chippewa for security reasons,” says Daniel Derenda, Buffalo Police Commissioner.
That police detail was quite apparent when News 4 Investigates did a spot-check recently. Buffalo Police officers could be seen walking the beat, some carrying batons, others patrolling in a vehicle. Everything appeared to be under control and business as usual.
But, it wasn’t business as usual for a group of friends out celebrating in the Chippewa District last July 14.
“They just said get out of the street, like, you’re not moving fast enough,” recalled Jonathan Li who was visiting Buffalo from San Francisco.
Li and some friends had attended the wedding of a family friend and found themselves on the corner of Chippewa and Franklin at 4:30 a.m. while they were returning to their hotel rooms. They soon found themselves confronted by police.
Li claims he was pushed to the ground by a Buffalo Police officer after taking a photograph of the Chippewa Street scene. “I was in absolute shock,” Li told News 4. “Pushed me. I stumbled. Pushed me a second time because I wasn’t moving fast enough.”
The young man said he was still recovering from a full knee replacement done two months earlier, and that he was hobbling around the night of the incident. Because he was dressed up to attend the wedding, he elected not to wear his leg brace.
“I fell over into the curb and I was lying on my back,” he said. He remembers that a couple of his friends came over to assist him, and to see what was wrong. He said that’s when one of his friends was pepper sprayed by police and arrested.
“The officer said, ‘I’m just going to have to make an example out of somebody,’ and pepper sprayed him,” another complainant told News 4 Investigates.
The second man, who had been living in New York City but now attends graduate school in Buffalo, is friends with Li. Because he lives in Buffalo, he asked that his identity be protected.
The second man told News 4 Investigates that questioning what police were doing led to him ending up handcuffed in the back of a police car. “I was like, you know, no one told me what I was being charged with, (laughs) this is, you know, I’m an American. I think I have rights,” he said.
Li who claims that he was pushed to the ground by police says he decided to document what was happening, “I took out my phone. I took some photos. I started taking videos just to almost protect myself. And then soon after, after arresting two of my friends they grabbed me. Took away my phone and arrested me.”
During a telephone interview with Buffalo Police Internal Affairs last August Li claimed that he was struck in the head with a baton. An audio excerpt from that interview included his statement: “While I was leaning against the car he hit me in the head with his baton, I believe. His wooden metal stick. Right over the left temple.”
Below, listen to a raw interview between Li and Internal Affairs Capt. Barbara Lark, which took place on August 27, 2013:
Both men say they were driven from the Chippewa scene in separate police cars to a nearby station house parking lot. Then, the second man says an officer struck him in the face while he was still handcuffed and in the back of the police car.
“He opens up my door and says ‘You talk too much,’ and punches me square in the face,” said the second man. He told News 4 that he was left bleeding from the officer’s punch. “The whole thing was just – it just spiraled so out of control that it was just like seems surreal almost,” he added.
Li, who had been sitting in a separate police car, backs up his story. He said he told Buffalo Police Internal Affairs investigators, “I saw my friends in the front, in the car in front of me. And I saw one of the police officers open the back door of the other car and lean in and hit my friend.”
The man who claims that he was punched in the face received a letter from Internal Affairs in May which stated, “Based on a thorough review of this case… the Commissioner has ordered disciplinary charges be filed against Officer Labby.”
“I don’t know his record,” the man said. “I don’t know if he had a bad day and something happened. It’s inexcusable to me to ever hit someone who’s in handcuffs, in the face, in the back of your police car.”
“If we find that we believe the complaint is correct and believable to what happened we will file charges on the officer,” Police Commissioner Derenda said.
He added that he can’t comment specifically about this case, but did talk generally about what he expects of his officers, particularly when it comes to the police detail on Chippewa Street. “The perfect scenario, always, no matter whether you’re on Chippewa or on patrol is to act professionally. That’s all we want. That’s what we expect from our officers.”
“We don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior by our officers. And there is a process in place to discipline them if we find that they’ve done the wrong thing,” Derenda said.
The three friends were arrested and charged with multiple charges. The young man who claims he was punched in the face was charged with obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct and an extra charge of resisting arrest, records show. The arresting document says the young man and his two friends “refused to leave when told to by officers.”
The arrest document also claims that the three men “were aggressive in a threatening manner towards officers” who were dispersing a crowd at Chippewa and Franklin.
All three defendants denied the allegations to News 4.
“I didn’t lay a hand on any of them,” said the man who was pepper sprayed.
The arrest document also claims that the young man who claims he was punched in the face by Labby “did kick Labby causing the defendant to be further subdued.”
The young man told News 4 that the allegation that he kicked the officer “didn’t happen.” He claims that Labby opened the car door and told him he was talking too much before landing a punch to his nose and mouth. The young man said he was bleeding all over his shirt.
His friend, sitting next to him in the squad car, told News 4 that he was recovering from the pepper spray so his head was turned away but he did hear the officer’s threats. He said his friend “wasn’t kicking” the officer.
He said he also saw the officers use a cloth or tissue to clean up the blood from his friend’s face.
Officer Edmond Labby is listed on the arrest report as one of the two arresting officers.
The charges were resolved with an ACD [adjournment in contemplation of dismissal] which was accepted by the defendants and the district attorney. There was no admission of guilt and six months later the charges were dismissed and their cases were sealed.