Prosecutors said two police officers from New York’s Buffalo were charged with assault on Saturday (June 6), after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old protester in recent demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, who surrendered on Saturday morning, pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault. They were released without bail.
“McCabe (32) and Torgalski (39) crossed a line when they shoved the man down hard enough for him to fall backward and hit his head on the sidewalk,” Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said at a news conference, calling the victim “a harmless 75-year-old man”.
The officers had been suspended without pay on Friday (June 5) after a TV crew captured the confrontation the night before. If convicted of the felony assault charge, they face up to seven years in prison.
Phone messages were left on Saturday with their lawyers.
The footage shows the man, identified as longtime activist Martin Gugino, approaching a line of helmeted officers holding batons as they cleared demonstrators from Niagara Square around the time of an 8 pm curfew.
Two officers push Gugino backward, and he hits his head on the pavement. Blood spills as officers walk past. One officer leans down to check on the injured man before another officer urges the colleague to keep walking.
“The police officers knew this was bad. Look at their body language,” Flynn said of the video.
The video of the encounter sparked outrage online, while demonstrators across the country are protesting against racial injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
“I think there was criminal liability from what I saw on the video. I think what the mayor did and the district attorney did was right, and I applaud them for acting as quickly as they did,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a briefing on Saturday.
“What we saw was horrendous and disgusting, and I believe, illegal,” he added.
However, dozens of Buffalo police officers who were furious over their fellow officers’ suspensions, stepped down from the department’s crowd control unit on Friday.
The resigning officers did not leave their jobs altogether.
A crowd of off-duty officers, firefighters and others gathered on Saturday outside the courthouse in a show of support for the accused officers and cheered when they were released.
“I just think it’s a strong indication of the outrage basically over this travesty,” John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told WIVB-TV.
Flynn said he understood the concerns of officers who do not feel they are being supported and pointed out that he was also prosecuting protesters who have turned into agitators and needed to be dealt with as well.
“There will be some who say that I’m choosing sides here. And I say that’s ridiculous. I’m not on anyone’s side,” he said.