Court dismisses black officer for stopping a colleague’s chokehold

It was a cold November day in Buffalo when Officer Cariol Horne responded to a call for a colleague in need of assistance. What she encountered was a white officer who appeared to be “in a rage” who repeatedly punched a handcuffed black man in the face while other officers stood by.

Officer Horne, who is black, heard the handcuffed man say he couldn’t breathe and saw the white officer put him in a stranglehold. At that point, court documents show, she forcibly removed the white officer and began punching him.

In the aftermath of the altercation, Officer Horne was transferred, charged with wards, and in the end was fired just a year short on the strength she needed to collect her full pension. She tried and failed more than once to have the decision overturned as unfair.

On Tuesday, in an outcome explicitly informed by police’s murder of George Floyd, a state court judge released an earlier ruling upholding her dismissal, essentially rewriting the end of her police career and her back wages. and was granted the benefits it had previously received. denied.

“At the very least, the justice system can be a mechanism to help justice prevail, even when it is too late,” wrote Judge Dennis E. Ward.

His statement also evoked the deaths of Mr. Floyd and Eric Garner, a Staten Island black man whose last words – “I can’t breathe” – have become a national rallying cry against police brutality.

“The time is always right to do the right thing,” added Justice Ward, of the Erie County State Supreme Court, citing Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a statement, Ms. Horne, 53, celebrated the decision.

“My justification takes 15 years, but what has been gained cannot be measured,” she said. “I never wanted another police officer to go through what I went through to do the right thing.”

A white officer’s attorney, Gregory Kwiatkowski, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, said the city has “always supported any additional judicial review available to Officer Horne and respects the court’s decision.”

The 2006 meeting that led to Ms. Horne’s firing started as a dispute between a woman and an ex-boyfriend she accused of stealing her Social Security check. When officers tried to arrest the ex-boyfriend, the situation turned violent.

Mrs. Horne said she saw Officer Kwiatkowski put the man in a stranglehold. Officer Kwiatkowski said he grabbed him around the neck and shoulders in “a bear hug from behind,” according to court documents. In Officer Kwiatkowski’s story, Mrs. Horne punched him in the face, pulled him back by his collar, and jumped on him.

An internal investigation cleared Officer Kwiatkowski of all charges; Mrs. Horne was offered a four-day suspension, which she refused. After hearings in 2007 and 2008, police found her use of physical violence against a fellow officer was unjustified.

She was fired in May 2008. Officer Kwiatkowski was promoted to lieutenant the same year.

“Her behavior should have been encouraged and she was fired instead,” W. Neil Eggleston, Ms. Horne’s attorney, said in an interview.

The dispute between Mrs. Horne and Officer Kwiatkowski didn’t end when she left the police. He sued her for defamation and won a $ 65,000 judgment against her.

Officer Kwiatkowski’s own police career ended under a cloud. He retired in 2011 while facing an internal affairs investigation and was charged the following year on federal civil rights charges resulting from the arrest of four black teens. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in prison.

After she was fired, Mrs. Horne worked odd jobs, including as a truck driver, and sometimes lived in her car, The Buffalo News reported. Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, where former officer Derek Chauvin is now on trial for murder in the murder, brought new attention to her case and the circumstances surrounding it. (Three other officers who were present when Mr. Floyd died were also charged with the murder.)

She filed a lawsuit to end the dismissal, citing the case involving Mr. Floyd. Shortly before that, she and others in Buffalo had begun to pressure members of the city’s legislature, the Common Council, to pass a so-called law-of-intervention requiring officers to intervene when one of used them excessive force.

Buffalo Police had passed such a rule in 2019, and last fall, the council passed the so-called “Cariol law” by 8 votes to 1.

Darius G. Pridgen, the chairman of the board, said a confluence of factors – including Ms. Horne’s own experience advocacy and increased police monitoring of misconduct following Mr. Floyd’s death – had created an environment for action. .

“During the protests, we tried to find ways to hold bad police officers to account,” said Mr. Pridgen. After Mr. Floyd’s murder and the demonstrations that followed, he said, “The timing was perfect.”

The law also gives officers fired in the past 20 years for intervening to stop the use of excessive force a chance to challenge their dismissals. In an unusual twist, Ms. Horne’s lawsuit cited the law named after her to advocate for that outcome.

Ms. Horne’s attorneys said that although she had been fired for wrongful intervention in an arrest, her actions were in line with what is expected of police officers: she had kept a civil vault.

“And after George Floyd,” said Mr. Eggleston, a former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, “we really understand what happens when agents don’t behave that way.”

Ed Shanahan contributed to the reporting.