And it gets worse.
Not only did a Buffalo police officer kick and slap a handcuffed and prone suspect, but he apparently tried to ensure that the evidence of the attack was destroyed. When other people do that, they are charged with a crime.
Police say that Officer John A. Cirulli threatened to confiscate the cellphone of a witness who made a video of the assault, unless he deleted the recording. That is to say, a man with a gun kicked and hit a helpless person, then bullied a witness so that he could get away with it. Or so it appears.
Based on other surveillance video of the scene, police say Cirulli walked up to the man who recorded the attack and asked for the phone. Fortunately – for the cause of justice, at least – the man recording the attack had evidently anticipated Cirulli’s demand and switched phones with another onlooker. The video survived.
If the events are, in fact, as they appear, there can hardly be a penalty too harsh, including job loss. The two incidents – the beating of John T. Willet and the effort to destroy the evidence – describe a dual abuse of authority. Each is intolerable on its own and together they cross a line from which there can be no return. If the public’s trust has not shattered beyond repair, it has been tested to limits that should never be reached. Police will have to work to repair the tear in public confidence.
Surveillance is everywhere these days. It’s hard to believe that Cirulli didn’t understand this when he demanded the cellphone that he thought had recorded the event. Not only could other witnesses have been recording him, but the Police Department has its own surveillance cameras set up. Banks, shops and other businesses also have cameras rolling. It has become a standard investigative technique for police to check all available surveillance videos following a crime committed in a public place.
Thus far in the investigation, which has drawn in federal authorities because of the possibility of civil rights violations, Cirulli has been suspended without pay. Five other officers were placed on administrative leave, although three of them are believed not to have seen the attack and are expected to return to patrol duties. The actions of the other two officers remain under investigation.
Here’s what everyone needs to know – cops, business people, politicians, students … everyone: In public places, don’t expect privacy. What you do, and maybe even what you say, may become a matter of public record. If that doesn’t keep people in line, then they’re beyond helping.
But police, especially, should not need the threat of being unmasked to regulate their conduct. Good training of good people ready to meet consistently high expectations should be enough.
And regarding what anyone might do or say in private? Don’t count on that remaining secret, either. Ask Donald Sterling about that.