Expert critical of Buffalo PD’s actions in chaotic pursuit of suspect
The officers who pulled over Kente Bell on March 29 showed “good police work” at the initial traffic stop, but the chaos that ensued once Bell drove off and allegedly shot at officers was “worse than the O.K. Corral.”
That’s the opinion of Jerry Rodriguez, a law enforcement expert with more than 35 years of experience at two metropolitan police forces. He climbed the ranks to captain of the Los Angeles Police Department and served as a deputy police commissioner in Baltimore before he turned to consulting on police policies, including use of force.
Rodriguez thought the Buffalo Police Department might have a tough time reconciling with the community if little is done to correct the violations of policies and procedures that he witnessed while reviewing news reports and the body camera footage that the agency has released so far.
“If I was a commissioner, and I had to face my constituents, my elected officials, my community, I would be very unhappy with the performance of my officers,” Rodriguez said. “Because this is not the way we train. This is not the way we want to use force. And if nothing else, the optics from a civilian, a citizen, a commuter, of seeing what appears to be indiscriminate fire as this vehicle is driving by … it’s concerning.”
Sixteen officers fired an unknown number of rounds during the high-speed pursuit that zig-zagged on densely populated Buffalo streets for almost a half-hour, law enforcement officials said.
Officers shot back at the suspect from their police vehicles, including one who shot through the windshield. Other officers fired “indiscriminately” from the streets during the tail-end of rush hour traffic. Officers yelled at passing vehicles and residents to move while the din of gunfire penetrated the air.
“That is of grave concern,” Rodriguez said, referring to how officers discharged their weapons so often in an active, urban area.
The incident ended in a hail of gunfire as officers surrounded the suspect’s SUV, which crashed in a small lot at the corner of Fillmore Avenue and East Ferry Street.
Three officers were shot, two by friendly fire, according to Erie County District Attorney John Flynn; Bell was critically wounded by police gunfire, but survived.
A grand jury indicted Bell on five counts of attempted murder and other charges. He faces a maximum sentence range of 40 years to life in prison.
In the end, Rodriguez concluded that the officers who responded that evening showed a lack of control and command. He said he was left with significant concerns over the amount of ammunition that officers fired, that they fired at and from moving vehicles, and how this all occurred while people were driving and walking around as if this were a normal day.
“And I mean no disrespect to these lieutenants … I know that this was a very chaotic and hazardous situation,” Rodriguez said. “They have live rounds coming back at them, but of the three officers that were [shot], two were friendly fire, and when I witnessed the officers at the termination of the pursuit, you had in essence a vehicle surrounded by what appeared to me to be personnel in uniform, and you had everyone firing from all directions.”
“What we needed and what we lacked was command and control, and unifying of that command,” he said.
Traffic stop turns into chaotic pursuit with gunfire
At about 5:54 p.m. that Tuesday, two Buffalo officers pulled over Bell for tinted windows at the foot of West Ferry Street.
Rodriguez said the officers were professional and courteous, and even attempted to de-escalate after Bell was informed that his registration had been suspended for over a month due to an insurance lapse.
“It’s not really a big deal,” said Officer Chelsea Rogowski. “We’ll just have you step out and work you through and go from there.”
Bell appeared to be trying to exit the car before he told Rogowski that he was shot in 2012 and needed crutches to move.
“OK, I’ll just have you step out slowly, I guess,” Rogowski said.
Five seconds later, Bell, who authorities said had a prior felony gun conviction, drove over a curb and sped away.
“I knew that was f****** coming,” Rogwoski said, before she and her partner ran to their car to pursue Bell.
Rodriguez said he was impressed with how the two officers handled themselves during the traffic stop.
But from that point on, Rodriguez did not have many positive observations.
The Buffalo Police Department policy manual obtained by News 4 Investigates prohibits officers from engaging in a pursuit if the reason for the attempted stop is for vehicle violations, misdemeanors, and non-violent felonies. In addition, officers are expected to consider several factors before initiating a pursuit, including the time of day, nature of the offense and population density.
Declining to pursue Bell was an option, Rodriguez said, and the police department could have made the arrest later in a much more controlled environment or tracked his movement with the use of aerial pursuit.
“That should have been considered,” Rodriguez said.
“However, once you start getting an individual that is actively shooting at uniformed police officers, there is an argument that if this individual is willing to shoot at uniformed, on-duty police officers, what would they do to the public?” he said.
Indeed, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joe Gramaglia said a pursuit would be deemed acceptable if a suspect fired at police officers.
“We have to learn from what we do, good, bad or indifferent,” Gramaglia said at a July 8 press conference.
District Attorney John Flynn said approximately 14 shots were fired from the suspect’s SUV during the pursuit.
“The majority of shots fired by the Buffalo police officers were at the end when he had crashed,” Flynn said during a press conference earlier this year, where he concluded that the officers’ actions were “legally justified.”
“I will end on this note, though: there is no penal law violation … that articulates common sense, and so I cannot charge any Buffalo police officer with a violation of common sense. I will leave that to Commissioner Gramaglia,” Flynn said.
Expert has ‘grave concerns’
Rodriguez said in situations where officers are being shot at, some police command staff might find it challenging to remind officers to be mindful of the environment they are in before they fire back.
“It’s difficult to tell an officer ‘make sure your background is absolutely safe’ even though your life is in immediate [danger], right?” Rodriguez said. “You’re acting in immediate defense of your life.”
But he also pointed out that, “we all know that that wasn’t the case here all the time, so should the officers have fired without a clear background that includes civilian residences, that includes other officers? And that’s going to have to be looked at.”
In addition, Rodriguez said shooting at or from a moving vehicle is rarely effective, and there was high risk of injuring innocent bystanders from a potential vehicle crash if an officer had been successful in rendering the driver incapacitated by gunshots.
Another significant event that Rodriguez noted was that he heard someone call off the pursuit, but officers ignored the command.
Some of the officers’ actions that Rodriguez said he saw on the body camera footage left him disappointed, including when an officer was firing at the suspect with homes and other police cars parked in the background.
“It’s a very risky move and quite honestly it embarrasses me,” Rodriguez said.
In all, Rodriguez said the police department’s internal affairs division is tasked with sorting out how many department policies were ignored, and the administration will determine what changes need to be made to insure officers don’t repeat any of the mistakes.
“Administratively, as having been a deputy police commissioner, a chief, I have grave concerns administratively as far as how we train, what we train, potential insubordination, background, contagious fire, lack of command and control,” he said.
On Tuesday, Gramaglia said at a press conference that the internal affairs investigation is ongoing, and the department is “going to be instilling additional training.”
“We will own our part,” Gramaglia said. “We will do our part. We will train our officers better and we will work through the mistakes that we made.”