Two Buffalo police officers who have been suspended without pay as the department investigates their role in the near-fatal episode at Molly’s Pub on May 11 should not have been there in the first place.
That’s because the Police Department’s practice of allowing its officers to moonlight as security teams paid by bar owners violates state law, a State Liquor Authority spokesman said.
New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law prohibits police from having any interest in the making or the sale of alcoholic beverages. So the Buffalo Police Department, like other agencies, blocks its officers from working off-duty inside bars. But it allows them to work outside bars, ostensibly on crowd control.
When the officers are paid by the holder of the liquor license – usually the bar owner – they are not following the law, State Liquor Authority spokesman William J. Crowley indicated Tuesday after consulting with an agency lawyer.
“Police officers cannot be employed by a licensee or a group of licensees,” Crowley told The Buffalo News in an email.
Nor can they work for a security company hired by the licensee, he said. Police can work in or around a liquor establishment only if they are on duty and paid by the police force itself, he said.
Buffalo’s top police officials say they now intend to discontinue the practice of off-duty officers working security at bars. But they did not give a timeline for doing so.
Meanwhile, the events at Molly’s just before 2 a.m. on Mother’s Day continues to unleash a swirl of events that captures both public attention and the focus of detectives and prosecutors.
There were these developments Tuesday:
• The Police Department suspended without pay Officers Robert E. Eloff, 39, and Adam E. O’Shei, 41. The two had been on administrative leave, with pay, after brutal injuries were inflicted on William C. Sager Jr., 28, an Air National Guardsman, while he was inside the bar. Sager, who suffered a severe brain injury when pushed down a flight of stairs, remained in Erie County Medical Center with little chance for recovery.
The manager of Molly’s, Jeffrey J. Basil, 35, of Amherst, has been charged with first-degree assault and is being held in the Erie County Holding Center. Authorities believe that Basil, unprovoked, pushed Sager down a flight of stairs, and that the victim landed on his head.
• Donald E. Hall, of Buffalo, Sager’s friend who called 911 and tried to intervene on his behalf, only to be charged with trespassing, appeared on the charge Tuesday in Buffalo City Court. His case was promptly dismissed at the urging of a county prosecutor. Hall then began to help the police and prosecutors investigating the assault and the role of the off-duty police.
“My client watched his friend bleeding from the ears and nose and almost die,” said Thomas P. Hurley, Hall’s lawyer. “My client stayed with the victim, and when the police arrived, he tried to tell them what happened and make sure an ambulance was on the way. He was instead arrested for criminal trespass.”
•Monday, a lawyer for Sager’s fiancée, Erika Webster, filed preliminary paperwork in State Supreme Court for a likely lawsuit against Molly’s, the bar’s principals and the City of Buffalo.
Her lawyer, Francis M. Letro, wants evidence – such as videos from cellphones and surveillance cameras, as well as complaints, incident reports and 911 calls pertaining to Molly’s for the last six months – preserved and eventually turned over.
The document is directed at NHJB Inc., the entity that owns Molly’s, as well as Basil, Norman J. Habib, Michael V. Miranda Jr. and the city. Habib holds the liquor license for Molly’s, while Basil is the bar manager. Government records indicate that Miranda owns the building at 3199 Main St. in University Heights.
By suspending Eloff and O’Shei, the Police Department is bringing them up on departmental charges and accusing them of acting in a manner unbecoming a police officer. The suspension is for 30 days, the standard span of time during which the department is to let the officers challenge the charges in a hearing. Police officials are likely to seek their termination.
Witnesses and police say that Eloff locked his handcuffs around Sager’s wrists when he was out cold. The officer, alongside Basil, was then seen on a digital recording entering the office where the bar’s surveillance hardware is kept. Basil, according to police sources, removed a key device and disposed of it in a garbage can outside, away from Molly’s. The device and digital images have been recovered, police sources say.
O’Shei’s role is less clear, but he is believed to have been in proximity. When Hall called 911 on Sager’s behalf, he reported that Sager was being harassed by the bar manager and two off-duty police officers.
In the wake of the episode at Molly’s, Buffalo police administrators had said they were reconsidering their policy to let off-duty cops moonlight outside bars. The event casts a harsh light on the conflicting roles that arise when sworn officers are paid by a third party in a potentially volatile atmosphere.
Is the officer present to serve the bar owner or protect the public?
Several area police agencies contacted by The News say they do not let off-duty officers work outside establishments that serve alcohol.
“It’s just too problematic,” Amherst Assistant Police Chief Charles C. Cohen said, citing the incident at Molly’s as a prime example of why it is best to forbid the practice. “Obviously based on what has happened,” he said, “we do not want to get mixed up with anything like that.”
Amherst police make an exception for lawn fetes and similar events, but officers are stationed away from the bars themselves, he said.
“We have on-duty and off-duty officers at Old Home Days, and they are away from the alcohol and there to keep the peace,” Cohen said.
Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said that if there is trouble at a bar, the staff should call 911 for help.
“Our personnel are not allowed to work in a bar or around a bar,” Wipperman said. “We think it is a conflict of interest. If the bar’s security can’t handle a situation, it is our opinion that they call 911, the jurisdictional police, and the on-duty officer can respond and handle it.”
With the Cheektowaga police, “generally speaking, no one works for a bar,” said Assistant Police Chief James J. Speyer Jr. Again, exceptions are made for lawn fetes and the like.
The State Police have a strict rule: No trooper can work any kind of off-duty security, spokeswoman Darcy L. Wells said.