BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — There are now questions about whether a gunshot was responsible for nearly tearing off the ear of Buffalo Police Officer Joseph Acquino during a scuffle with a suspect Sunday in Black Rock.
The incident ended with Acquino’s partner, Officer Justin Tedesco, fatally shooting the suspect, 26-year-old Jose Hernandez-Rossy.
Law enforcement sources tell News 4 while doctors were certain on Sunday night that Acquino’s injuries were the result of a gunshot, they are now saying the injuries could also be the result of other trauma.
The vehicle driven by Hernandez-Rossy crashed through a hedge and into a house at Garfield Street and Hartman Place after the driver failed to comply with Acquino’s orders, tried to drive away and the officer took control of the wheel, as he was hanging out of the driver’s side window.
The vehicle’s airbag deployed upon impact with the house.
After the crash, Hernandez-Rossy fought with Acquino, and the suspect was eventually shot by Tedesco as the scuffle broke up.
“He was screaming he was shot. He was asking for help and his partner saw that he had a head wound with his hanging down and then the driver of that vehicle started to fight with Tedesco. You add that all up, including pulling a cop into a car with an accelerator spiked, and you understand why this individual ended up having deadly force used against him,” said Tom Burton, the attorney representing Officer Tedesco.
The bullet passed through the upper arm of Hernandez-Rossy and severed an artery. With Tedesco in pursuit, the suspect ran a short distance before collapsing. He was pronounced dead at Kenmore Mercy Hospital a short time later.
Acquino is expected to be interviewed by police on Wednesday. It will be the first time he is questioned by his department since Sunday’s incident.
Late Tuesday, the New York Attorney General’s Office officially announced they would step in as an independent investigator in the case. Their role follows a 2015 executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that allows the attorney general to investigate civilian deaths by law enforcement if it’s determined the civilian was unarmed, or whether there are “substantial questions” about whether the civilian was armed.
On Wednesday morning, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn stated “My role in this matter is over.”
Law enforcement sources tell News 4 representatives from the attorney general’s office have been aware of the fatal shooting since shortly after it happened around 5 p.m. Sunday. The announcement of their investigation was made at about 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.
“Based upon what I have learned so far, Officer Acquino thought he was shot,” Flynn said. “The Buffalo Police Department had no reason to think otherwise. However, after the course of our investigation over the past 48 hours, significant questions exist into whether or not that’s true.”
See Flynn’s Wednesday conference in the video below:
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Burton added that whether or not a gun is found is not the important part of the case.
“It’s whether or not this officer reasonably believed that his partner had been shot,” Burton said. “There were multiple witnesses to the ear injury- you don’t fake a three hour surgery to reattach it to your head.”
Burton said his client, Officer Tedesco never saw the gun that Hernandez-Rossy allegedly used.
The attorney representing the family of Hernandez-Rossy says his independent investigation reveals he never had a gun during the interaction with police. “After interviewing several people that saw it and have described what they saw, there’s no basis to suspect that he ever had a gun or any weapon. This was not a justified shooting,” said Nelson Torre.
Torre added Hernandez-Rossy was charged with several traffic infractions by Officer Acquino in 2014; all of them were dropped. That history, he said, is part of the reason he feels the traffic stop was not a routine one. Torre told News 4 he feels the 26-year-old was targeted.
“There’s still large questions that are open regarding the basis, the reason, and the circumstances for the initial contact between these two officers and Jose Hernandez,” Torre said.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, Hernandez-Rossy was spotted smoking marijuana, which prompted Officers Acquino and Tedesco to pull him over.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said Wednesday that these types of investigations take time.
“When there’s a type of investigation involving force, things happen very quickly, and a lot of things happen, and a lot of information needs to be pieced together to get to the bottom of all the circumstances involved,” Brown said.
Brown added that as mayor, he believes that it’s his responsibility to let police officers know that they are supported and that the community stands with them.
The incident began when officers Acquino and Tedesco attempted to pull over a vehicle driven by Hernandez-Rossy near the intersection of Garfield Street and Hartman Place. As Acquino approached the vehicle, Hernandez-Rossy attempted to drive away, and Acquino grabbed the wheel.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said during a press conference Monday they believe Hernandez-Rossy was armed and shot Acquino during the struggle.
“During a traffic stop, a struggle ensued with the suspect,” Derenda told reporters Monday. “The officer was shot by the suspect, continued, more struggle and the suspect was shot by one of our officers.”
Police have been searching the Black Rock neighborhood for the gun allegedly used by Hernandez-Rossy since Sunday. It has not been found.
Law enforcement sources tell News 4 the Attorney General’s office has heard from multiple civilian witnesses who said they did not see Hernandez-Rossy with a gun.
Acquino’s ear was reattached by doctors during a surgery late Sunday. He was released from ECMC late Tuesday afternoon.
An autopsy has been completed on Hernandez-Rossy. Torre expects results will come sooner rather than later based on this investigation.