The mother of a young man in a YouTube video that shows him being beaten by Buffalo police says she cannot put into words the horror she experienced watching it.
“I can’t describe verbally the pain I felt to see my son pinned to ground and the officer picking up his foot and stomping my son like he was nothing,” said Donnetta M. Lewis, the Amherst mother of 22-year-old Buffalo resident John T. Willet. “It sent a chill through my body.”
Six Buffalo police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave as an internal investigation was under way. Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and Mayor Byron W. Brown condemned any police brutality that may have occurred.
Here is what is known: At 10:30 p.m. April 19, police noticed a speeding car in the city’s Riverside section. They chased the driver, Willet, who ditched the vehicle and then ran away.
When police caught him, they found heroin, crack cocaine and marijuana on him and charged him with intending to sell some of the drugs. But before he was booked, he was handcuffed and, from the appearance of the video, was beaten by one police officer while others stood by.
The officer responsible for hitting and kicking Willet placed a knee either on Willet’s head or throat to keep him on the ground and continued striking him after he was in handcuffs, according to police officials, who said that any harsh physical contact should have stopped when the cuffs were in place.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has been in contact with Derenda, and federal officials are considering their own investigation into the incident, authorities said. Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III has also discussed the case with Derenda.
The Internal Affairs Division’s investigation began late Friday after the commissioner and the mayor were emailed copies of the video.
“The Buffalo Police Department does not condone or tolerate any inappropriate behavior,” Derenda said at a news conference Monday, adding that when other officers witness police brutality, they have an obligation to report it.
“Certainly, when I saw the video, I was extremely and deeply concerned about what I viewed,” Brown said in contacting The Buffalo News later Monday.
“I told Commissioner Derenda to conduct a swift and complete investigation. We have made it clear that we will not tolerate inappropriate behavior by police officers.”
The video was taken by one or two individuals who happened to be at Philadelphia and Ontario streets on the night of April 19. Last weekend, it was posted on Cop Block of Western New York’s Facebook page and later on YouTube.
Willet’s mother, a registered nurse, recalled her son as a young boy telling her that he wanted to one day become a police officer. “When he was a little boy, he’d say, ‘Mom, I wanna be a police officer,’ ” Lewis said.
Over the years, though, he had minor skirmishes with the law and sometimes used marijuana recreationally, Lewis said. The mother said Monday that she understands, to a point, that police were within their rights in the struggle while trying to handcuff her son. But she believes that any physical harm to her son that came after he was cuffed was unjustified.
“Once my son was facedown on the ground, his arms handcuffed behind his back, he is totally defenseless. At that point, there was no need to do anything, punching his head and stomping him,” Lewis said, while sitting in the living room of her Amherst home.
According to a police report on the incident, Northwest District Officer John A. Cirulli said Willet’s Chevrolet Impala was driving at a high rate of speed in Riverside and passed another vehicle on the passenger side of the two-lane street.
“Officers pulled alongside of the defendant as he pulled over and did state to the defendant just slow down for us OK, and the defendant bailed out of the car and started running,” the report states.
During the foot chase, Willet jumped over a fence before he was taken down at Philadelphia and Ontario streets, where there is a police surveillance camera. Internal Affairs investigators, Derenda said, have obtained additional video of the incident.
“The defendant was apprehended by Officer Cirulli and Officer Militello and taken into custody by Officer Gilbert and Officer Griffin,” Cirulli stated, adding that Willet fought with officers and had to be “forcibly subdued and handcuffed.”
Besides Cirulli, the references were to Officers Nicholas A. Militello, Dennis R. Gilbert and Brian O. Griffin.
Cirulli’s report also states that Willet had two bags of heroin in his left pants pocket and a bag of crack cocaine and a bag of marijuana on the center console in his car.
Lewis said her son received medical treatment after the beating and is staying with friends. She added that he has contacted an attorney to represent him but that he is no longer available to comment.
Willet, in an earlier interview with WIVB-TV, offered his own explanation of what happened. He said that he was driving in Riverside and that an unmarked police car pulled up alongside him. At first, he didn’t know who it was, he said, but moments later took off on foot after exiting his car.
“I ran because of the fact that I did have some type of drugs on me,” Willet told Channel 4. “So, I ran and, you know, I figured, you know, I’d probably get away, but it didn’t work out that way.”
A Buffalo police officer, according to Willet’s account, told him, “This is what happens when you run in Buffalo. If you run in Buffalo, you gonna get beat.’ He said, ‘I bet you won’t run anymore.’ ”
In the Channel 4 report by reporter Luke Moretti, Willet said when police caught up to him, he surrendered right away and didn’t put up any resistance.
“I put my hands up. And that’s when I got the first swing to my face,” he said. “I surrendered. I stopped. I put my hands up. It was no more point to run.
“The only thing I could think was just to keep telling them, or asking them, or begging them to stop hitting me. ’Cause, you know, my face obviously started hurting. I felt my face starting to swell up. I didn’t want to have a shut eye.”
After that, Willet said officers continued striking him.
“After I was put in the vehicle, after I had handcuffs on me, I continued to be hit,” Willet told Moretti.
Police sources identified the officers on administrative leave as Officers Cirulli, Militello, Gilbert, Griffin, Lamar M. McCulley and Lindsay A. Laracuente-Zgoda. They will remain on leave while details of the investigation are sorted out and to avoid criticism that the officers are continuing with patrol duties, the sources said.
The charges against Willet are criminal possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, criminal possession of a controlled substance, unlawful possession of marijuana, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.