The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge rules in favor of ex-Buffalo officer who said she was fired for stopping a colleague’s chokehold

Cariol Horne, a former Buffalo police officer who says she was fired after trying to stop a colleague from using excessive force, attends a protest last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death. (Justin Sondel)

For well over a decade, Cariol Horne insisted she was wrongly fired for trying to stop a White colleague from putting a handcuffed Black man in a chokehold.

The colleague said Horne, who is Black, had jumped on him while he struggled to gain control of an unruly suspect. Review after review of the incident declared he was right. Then he was convicted of abusing his badge by shoving the heads of four handcuffed African American teenagers into a police car.

That 2009 case was on a New York judge’s mind this week as he considered Horne’s years-long quest for vindication and a full pension — as were a litany of other arrests in which police were accused of excessive force. Horne’s tale of being punished for standing up to a fellow Buffalo officer has taken on new weight as a former Minneapolis officer went on trial for kneeling for more than nine minutes on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man. Floyd went unconscious in the presence of three other officers, now criminally charged.

“One of the issues in all of these cases is the role of other officers at the scene and particularly their complicity in failing to intervene to save the life of a person to whom such unreasonable physical force is being applied,” Judge Dennis Ward of the state Supreme Court in Erie County wrote on Tuesday. Later, he added: “While the … George Floyds of the world never had a chance for a ‘do over,’ at least here the correction can be done.”

Overriding his own court’s previous order, the judge vacated Horne’s firing and said she should get back pay as well as the full pension she fell just short of earning. He said that older verdicts lacked key information about the officer Horne says she intervened against. Society’s views on police use of force had also “altered the landscape,” he said, acknowledging the nationwide change and outrage that gave Horne’s story new momentum this past year.

“My vindication comes at a 15 year cost, but what has been gained could not be measured,” Horne, 53, said in a statement Tuesday. “I never wanted another Police Officer to go through what I had gone through for doing the right thing.”

The ruling was personally momentous: The pension, she said in an interview, means a steady income and no more bouts of homelessness — a chance to live “the American dream,” she said, rather than a “nightmare.”

But she was focused Wednesday on the broader implications. She used her spotlight to tout Cariol’s Law, which she drafted with the aid of attorneys and which would require police to step in when a colleague uses unreasonable force.

It was just signed into law in Buffalo, and Horne says she hopes it can spread throughout the country.

“I know there are officers who do not like to see abuse … but they are afraid to cross that blue wall,” Horne said

The former officer that Horne accused of using a chokehold sticks by his version of the story — one backed by the other law enforcement on the scene, according to various reviews of the fateful 2006 arrest.

“I guess if you tell a lie long enough, it eventually becomes the truth,” Greg Kwiatkowski told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday.

According to local prosecutors’ review of the evidence in 2008, Kwiatkowski was struggling to get the arrested man outside of a home when the suspect reached for Kwiatkowski’s gun, prompting the officer to grab him “around the waist and shoulder.” Horne started to yell “Leave him alone,” then hit Kwiatkowski to get him off the suspect, prosecutors said.

The memo said there were “no credible facts” supporting criminal conduct during the arrest by anyone except Horne, and that Horne could be charged with obstruction and harassment. A court later affirmed Horne’s termination, and Kwiatkowski won defamation cases related to the arrest.

But Kwiatkowski would come under fresh scrutiny for his treatment of other suspects and found guilty of “deprivation of rights under color of law.”

Kwiatkowski said he’s “faced up to what I did” in 2009 — excessive force for which he was convicted about a decade later. He testified against fellow officers as part of a plea deal, prosecutors said — taking a step not unlike the one Horne has urged for other officers around the country.

“What we asked Mr. Kwiatkowski to do was very substantial,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango, the Buffalo News reported in 2018, when Kwiatkowski was sentenced to four months in prison. “He crossed that thin blue line.”

For years, Horne made little headway in her push to get her pension.

Then Floyd’s death — captured in video seen around the world — forced a reckoning over the way officers police Black Americans, as well as their failures to police one another.

Three officers face charges of aiding and abetting murder for their actions as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck last May, disregarding bystanders’ cries to stop.

Buffalo was soon plunged into its own firestorm after video showed two members of the city police pushing a 75-year-old man, who fell to the ground and was then seen lying motionless and bleeding from the head. Police rallied around the two officers, and Horne showed up as an outcast to one gathering of supporters, filming as people jeered and called her “liar.”

If police “are going to back out when you have an officer stop police brutality, and they step up when you have officers knocking over 75-year-old men, then we have a big problem in Buffalo, New York,” she told The Post last summer. The officers were not charged.

Horne kept pressing her own case, securing pro bono help from high-powered lawyers — the firm Kirkland & Ellis as well as Harvard Law professors. She filed last fall to vacate the state Supreme Court’s old ruling upholding her firing. A win would not be symbolic, since she was fired short of the 20 years of service necessary for a full pension.

Ward came down in her favor. Now she is eligible for back wages and benefits through 2010, enough for the pension threshold.

The city of Buffalo did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night, but a spokesman told the Buffalo News, “The City has always supported any additional judicial review available to Officer Horne and respects the court’s decision.”

Horne’s lawyers heralded the ruling as one with a broader message.

“As recent events have sparked national outrage over the use of excessive force by police, we are grateful to the court for acknowledging that ‘police officers who intervene [are] now being seen as heroes,’” Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. said in a statement.

He pointed to another quote from Tuesday’s ruling: “To her credit, Officer Horne did not merely stand by, but instead sought to intervene, despite the penalty she ultimately paid for doing so.”

Read more:

Officer who shot Daunte Wright resigns, as does Brooklyn Center police chief

In wrenching photos, slain Capitol officer’s children watch his memorial and wipe mother’s tears

What do communities do when the police retreat?