The Trigger and the Choice

Part 3: The officers of the Buffalo Police Department went more than four years and 2 million calls without a fatal shooting. What did they do right?

This city gets heavy snow in the winter, hard rain in the summer, and the occasional gun falling from the sky. Maybe it clatters onto a roof, or clangs into a garbage can, or splashes down in an open field. Wherever it falls, two men may come looking for it: Officers Mark Hamilton and Michael Acquino, who confiscate more illegal guns than any other pair in the Buffalo Police Department.

These transactions often start on the sidewalk, when someone acts just a little off: talking too fast, volunteering too much information, pretending to be on the phone, and maybe they reach for the waistband, and maybe they start to run. This is when the evidence goes airborne. The average loaded handgun weighs about two pounds, roughly six times as much as a baseball. You’d be surprised how far a man on parole can make one fly.

One day a few years ago the officers went after a runner who did not throw the gun. He was a big man, almost 300 pounds, reluctant to go back to prison. They told him to stop, and he didn’t. They told him to drop the gun, and he wouldn’t. They caught him in a driveway and Acquino tackled him and Hamilton grabbed his arm and still he wouldn’t drop the gun. They fought for more than a minute, which felt much longer, and finally Acquino got free and pulled his own gun and took aim with a finger on the trigger.

For every police-involved shooting that makes the news, there are countless others that almost happen -- thousands of moments when an officer finds a way not to use what would be legally justified deadly force. Most veteran officers have a story like this, and some have five or 10 or more. They have a lot of these stories in Buffalo, also known as the City of Good Neighbors, which is one reason the police department went from December 2012 to May 2017 without a single fatal officer-involved shooting -- a streak of more than four years.

To put this achievement in perspective, other departments of similar size had multiple fatal shootings in the same period. For example, the Orlando Police Department recorded 24 officer-involved shootings during the same span -- 10 of them fatal. According to unofficial statistics compiled by the activist group Mapping Police Violence, only three of the nation’s 100 largest departments went without a fatal shooting from 2013 through 2016. Two were the peaceful suburban enclaves of Irvine, California, and Plano, Texas. The third was Buffalo, a gritty metropolis of 260,000 that averages nearly 50 homicides a year.

By early May, the department had investigated more than 210 homicides and answered roughly 2 million calls for service since its last fatal officer-involved shooting. This story examines the reasons behind that phenomenon, and what happens in a city whose guardians find a way not to kill.

Officer Michael Acquino

Officer Mark Hamilton

Michael Acquino is still not certain he did the right thing. He worries that he risked his life and his partner’s. Hamilton remembers thinking, Mike, shoot this guy! But Acquino did not. He waited another second, and Hamilton kept slamming the suspect’s arm onto the concrete, and finally the big man dropped the gun.

In interviews with a dozen members of the Buffalo Police Department, a collective mindset emerges. It is not fear or hesitation. It is more like optimism, or faith: the belief that better things will happen if they don’t fire than if they do.

Acquino can’t say exactly why he held his fire. But in interviews with a dozen members of the Buffalo Police Department, a collective mindset emerges. It is not fear or hesitation. It is more like optimism, or faith: the belief that better things will happen if they don’t fire than if they do. In police work, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. But some beliefs have a way of making themselves true.



Officer Justin Tedesco

Officer Joseph Acquino

On March 22, 2017, when 1,567 days had passed since the department’s last fatal shooting, CNN spent the better part of a shift with five officers: Mark Hamilton, Michael Acquino, Michael’s younger brother Joseph Acquino, Joseph’s partner Justin Tedesco, and Anthony Fanara, a Navy special ops reservist who had once been shot in the chest during an ambush by a gang of Romanian bikers. Riding in a column of three patrol cars on a frigid afternoon, the five men whipped around the city, past vacant lots and decaying churches, looking to interrupt drug deals and confiscate guns. After sunset Hamilton went back to the station for dinner, and the other four walked into a red-sauce Italian restaurant called Chef’s. They took off their bulletproof vests, lined them up against the wall of a private dining room, and sat down to tell war stories.

“Prob’ly shoulda shot ‘im,” Fanara said, referring to a teenager who once threatened him with a .357 Magnum. “The kid was dead wrong for everything he did. He got let off. And if he ever shoots another cop, I would feel a lot of guilt.”

“Fast-forward two years after this,” Michael Acquino said, “I caught him with another gun.”

“And there was 30 people behind him,” Fanara said, moving on to a story about another suspect. “I’m not just gonna pull out my gun and shoot this guy. You know? There’s 30 people behind him. You gotta be aware of that, too.”

The men could share these stories with journalists -- could dip the bread in the olive oil, pass around the Buffalo chicken rolls, laugh and smile and riff and look forward to the adventures the rest of the night would bring -- because their stories always ended well, with the suspect in handcuffs and nobody hurt. They knew that might change any day, although they could not know how or when.

Forty-six days later, one officer at this table would be gravely injured during a traffic stop. Another would shoot a man to death.



Pierre Martin

About 11 years earlier, at Buffalo’s 2006 Juneteenth festival, a young man fired toward a crowd with a machine pistol. Violence was a recurring problem at Buffalo Juneteenth, where local gang members went to intimidate their enemies. Nineteen-year-old Pierre Martin heard gunfire that afternoon and believed his friends were in danger. He returned fire with a MAC-10, the bullets escaping so quickly that he lost count of the shots. Miraculously, no one was struck. But the police went after him, and Pierre Martin began to run.

Lt. Steve Nichols chased him out of the park and onto a side street, where he disappeared behind a house. Someone on a front porch silently pointed Nichols in the right direction. I have to shoot this kid, Nichols remembers thinking. He came around the corner, gun drawn, and saw Martin, hands on knees, catching his breath. Martin would say he’d already thrown away the gun, but Nichols would recall seeing it at his feet, barrel still smoking.

Capt. Steve Nichols

Nichols did not shoot. He charged, knocking Martin down and applying handcuffs. Martin took a plea deal and spent less than two years in prison. He left the gang, missed out on a bank robbery and entered peaceful civilian life. And that day became a turning point in Buffalo history.

City leaders made a plan to save Juneteenth: They asked several groups of anti-violence activists to join forces in a new organization called the Buffalo Peacemakers. The Peacemakers turned out at the next Juneteenth, helping police identify and peacefully remove nearly 80 gang members. It worked so well that Mayor Byron Brown expanded the Peacemakers' role and eventually found money to pay them modest stipends. Today they serve as a kind of civilian buffer between the police and the community, a benevolent presence that helps each group see the other in a better light. Nichols is now the captain in charge of community policing, and a 6-foot-7 grandfather named Murray “Six” Holman leads the Peacemakers. Nichols recently said to Holman, “I talk to you probably more than I talk to my wife.”

Make no mistake: Buffalo has a history of police misconduct just like any other city. Local news outlets have reported extensively on police scandals large and small. One of the Peacemakers, Willie Green, remembers the time in 1997 when an officer wrote him a speeding ticket. Green called him a liar in court. When they met again on the street, according to Green, “He choked me and said, ‘If you see me, you run.’” In 2014, an officer was caught on smartphone video punching a handcuffed suspect. Public defender Rebecca Town said she is not convinced officers always have probable cause when they stop and question young men on the street. One of those young men, Brandon Grazes, 23, said he was recently walking with a bag of groceries in one hand and an icicle in the other. He was joking around with a friend, pretending to have a cane, but he says an officer told him to throw it on the ground because it could be a weapon.

“Buffalo police know how to ruin a mood,” he said.

If it’s easy to hate the uniform, it’s harder to hate the person who helped you reel in your first bass.

The Peacemakers and other anti-violence activists work hard to change that perception. This matters for several reasons. Young people who don’t hate or distrust the police are less likely to draw guns on the police, and thereby less likely to get shot by the police. Arlee Daniels Jr., former leader of the Manhattan Lovers street gang, teaches young men to show their hands, give their names, show ID. He tells them, “Police are not there to hurt you.” Peacemaker George Johnson says some children in Buffalo’s poor neighborhoods have never seen Lake Erie, even though it’s four or five miles away. He takes them on fishing trips and brings police officers along. If it’s easy to hate the uniform, it’s harder to hate the person who helped you reel in your first bass.



Officer Armonde “Moe” Badger

Shortly after midnight on June 11, 2016, when the streak was 1,283 days old, a melee broke out on the Eastside. As police sorted through the chaos, a drunken teenager confronted an officer. The officer was too preoccupied to notice another youth running toward him with a butcher knife.

Now is a good time to mention Tasers. These electric stun guns are used by more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries as a safer alternative to gunfire. Their manufacturer claims they have saved more than 180,000 people from death or serious injury, and studies have shown they reduce the likelihood that suspects or officers will get hurt. They also malfunction sometimes, and occasionally cause serious injury or contribute to a suspect’s death. Some officers use them too often, too early in the encounter, out of fear or possibly laziness.

An agency that is especially good at not shooting people manages this feat without one of the law enforcement world’s most popular instruments of less-lethal force.

Anyway, the Buffalo Police Department does not use Tasers. Its commissioner is not convinced the benefits outweigh the risks. This bears repeating: An agency that is especially good at not shooting people manages this feat without one of the law enforcement world’s most popular instruments of less-lethal force.

What the agency does have is a large proportion of Buffalo natives: men and women who grew up in the city, many of them in police families. The department won’t let people take the police exam unless they already live in the city, and the department requires officers to maintain city residence at least seven years after they’ve been hired. This familiarity can lead to awkward situations -- Deputy Commissioner Kimberly Beaty still remembers the time she had to arrest her brother’s former girlfriend -- but it means the officers feel comfortable on their beats. They know names and faces. They speak with the same Buffalonian accent as the citizens they encounter. (It is most audible in the lengthened pronunciation of words such as bar or car.) And sometimes words are weapons enough.

Officer Armonde “Moe” Badger, son of a preacher and father of four, saw the knife-wielding youth running toward his colleague. The youth was perhaps 15 feet from the other officer, apparently furious that his brother was being handcuffed. Badger did not shoot. He did not even swear. He used what he calls his Daddy Voice -- the same tone that rousts his children out of bed in the morning:

“DROP THE KNIFE!”

The boy dropped the knife, and Badger told him to go home.



Officer Jasmine Olmstead

Two hours before sunrise on January 8, 2017, when the wind chill was sub-zero and the streak was 1,494 days old, a man in downtown Buffalo was out of his mind on synthetic drugs. He’d already attacked a motorist and gotten himself shot in the hand by the time Officer Jasmine Olmstead pulled up. The man made his hands into an imaginary gun and aimed it at her. Pow, pow!

Olmstead pulled her own gun, then reholstered. He jumped on her hood. She told him to get off. He tried to climb in through her open window. She shifted to drive, swerving to knock him off, but he held on. He reached in and punched her in the face. She was driving up Main Street, vision obscured by the man on her windshield, and now he punched her again, and climbed into the vehicle, and sat on her lap, and reached for her gun.

Police officers are about five times more likely to be injured on the job than the average American worker.

Police officers are about five times more likely to be injured on the job than the average American worker. In Buffalo, they sustain more than 100 work-related injuries a year, or about one every three days. These are the costs of guarding a city. And when it’s done right -- when enough officers walk the tightrope between risk and restraint -- it appears to make everyone safer.

Violent crime in Buffalo has fallen steadily since 2006; property crime since 1992. Buffalo did not see the spike in violence that some other cities did after the Ferguson unrest. Nor did it see rioting. There were a few demonstrations, but police stood back and watched, and Murray Holman of the Peacemakers told a protester to stop jumping on a police car. That was about it. The violence did not escalate. The logic of the Buffalo police and the Peacemakers went something like this: When the police are not the enemy -- and when they don’t treat citizens as their enemies -- fewer people try to kill them. When fewer people try to kill them, they kill fewer people. When they kill fewer people, they make fewer enemies. On and on the cycle goes. In St. Louis, according to union spokesman Jeff Roorda, police can barely go a weekend without someone firing at them. In Buffalo, they’ve had only one officer fatally shot in the last 20 years.

“We don’t want anyone to die on our shift.”

Jasmine Olmstead could have floored the accelerator and then hit the brake, throwing the madman into the road and saving herself nerve damage in her forearm and sprains in her back. She did not. Olmstead is only 5-foot-4, 140 pounds, but she found a way to fend him off. She returned his punches, kept the gun away, and slowed the vehicle to a stop. Other officers arrived and pulled him out through the window. It took seven or eight of them to get him handcuffed. “We don’t want anyone to die on our shift,” Olmstead said later, still recovering from her injuries. No one did.



Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda

One night in 1990, almost 23 years before the streak began, a fight broke out at Club Virgoan on Broadway. As people streamed outside, a man took aim at Officer Daniel Derenda with a .38-caliber revolver. Derenda didn’t want to fire into a crowd, so he pointed his own gun and stared the man down. The man lowered his gun, and Derenda and a partner handcuffed him. “I’m lucky I didn’t get killed and nobody else got killed,” Derenda told The Buffalo News at the time. He is now the city’s police commissioner.

Not long ago, a local news website published a picture of a uniformed Buffalo officer raking leaves for an elderly widow. Commissioner Derenda thinks of that picture sometimes, and it reminds him of the time another old woman called the police and asked if someone could shovel her snow. Derenda shoveled her snow. He also served on the SWAT team, supervised narcotics and homicide detectives, and faced down the man at Club Virgoan without anyone getting hurt. All of which gives him a certain credibility when he disciplines the rank-and-file officers -- when he fires them, or calls the FBI to investigate them, or busts them for abusing sick time. They might curse the commissioner, but they know he was once one of them.

Does any of this sound innovative? Revolutionary? If you’re looking for shiny gadgets or cutting-edge experiments to help explain what the Buffalo police are doing right, you will be disappointed. They do not use Tasers, dash-cams, or body cameras. Commissioner Derenda does not have a college degree, and the mayor appointed him seven years ago without conducting a national search. The state of New York offers a rigorous accreditation program to make sure local police departments use best practices and procedures. Rochester was accredited in 1990; Syracuse in 1992; Albany in 1999. Buffalo has never been accredited.

Why? The union contract does not allow routine officer evaluations. Derenda blames the union; the union blames Derenda. They are not on good terms. The union files more than 300 contractual grievances per year. Its president is Kevin Kennedy, a hulking man who keeps his office window cracked even in the howling winter. His complaints about the commissioner include a frequent one about firearms training, which he says is below New York’s minimum standard. Derenda disagrees. But here’s what makes this especially interesting: According to Internal Affairs Inspector Harold McLellan, officers fired their guns in at least five separate incidents during the non-fatal-shooting streak. One suspect was injured. In the other four cases, the officers missed.

Why didn’t Buffalo police shoot and kill anyone from December 2012 to May 2017? This is how the union president answers that question:

“It might be just by sheer luck.”



Officer Anthony Fanara

Officer Bradford Pitts

On June 15, 2016, the streak nearly ended at 1,287 days. A young man with orange braids and a Hi-Point .45 robbed another man on Doat Street and hustled around the corner with Officer Anthony Fanara in pursuit. Fanara never drew his gun. Did this make him brave, or crazy? Sometimes there’s not much difference.

Fanara survived an ambush in Iraq and a shooting in Romania. Maybe part of him felt invincible. The gun-toting robber was a lot bigger than Fanara, but Fanara tackled him anyway, and the robber fell on Fanara’s arm. He pressed the .45 to Fanara’s chest, and Fanara pushed it away. He put it there again, and Fanara pushed it away again. Finally Officer Joseph Acquino knocked the gun away, and Officer Bradford Pitts helped make the arrest. According to court records, the man said:

“I pulled the trigger. He’s lucky because I forgot the safety was on.”

About nine months later, Fanara and the Acquinos and Hamilton and Tedesco go looking for more trouble on the streets of Buffalo. At Sweeney and Genesee, they hassle two marijuana dealers but decide their stash is too small to bother with an arrest.

“You two can get outta here,” Joseph Acquino says.

“OK,” one replies. “Have a good one, y’all.”

Michael Acquino and Mark Hamilton have taken more than 500 illegal guns since 2009, and they’ve apparently done it by the book. When officers cheat -- when they stop suspects without probable cause or conduct illegal searches -- a sharp defense attorney can often persuade a judge to suppress the evidence. “With these two guys, it’s always right,” says Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn. “There’s never an issue.”

When Mayor Byron Brown describes the work of his officers, two words come up again and again: difficult and dangerous. He is right on both counts. To do this job well, luck is not enough. Neither is skill. You have to be brave, and a little crazy. And if you have all these attributes -- if you somehow catch the bad guys day after day, and you don’t kill anyone, and they don’t kill you -- maybe your city gives you a moment like this:

Lavender twilight, cold and getting colder. Five officers pull into the Shaffer Village housing project. In the courtyard, they are mobbed by children. “Are we picking teams?” a boy asks. He points to two officers. “You’re captain and you’re captain.” Joseph Acquino takes the football and sprints for a touchdown. Hamilton throws a lovely spiral toward the darkening sky. Others ask to race him to the garbage can and back. Hamilton takes the challenge, boots slapping on the concrete, laughter ringing off the walls, eight boys and an officer, running side by side.

Officer Mark Hamilton



Later that night at Chef’s restaurant, Michael Acquino got to talking about what it’s like to be a cop in America in 2017. The words seemed to come from a hidden well of emotion, and once it opened they just kept spilling out:

“I mean, I’ve lost -- not close friends, but friends, because of the comments they’ve made about, you know, ‘This cop was wrong.’ Were you there? Do you know what it’s like to pull a car over, and as soon as you get out of that car your heart’s racing because you know in your mind this person possibly has a gun? You’re in a bad area, so you’re alert 24/7. So someone reaches for something, yeah, you’re gonna back up. … Because all he’s gotta do if he reaches for a gun is blow your head off. I mean, you know how quick it takes to turn and fire? You know, it’s just -- sometimes it’s hard to watch the media portray cops as they’re rogue, they’re goin’ out there shootin’ people -- I mean, you weren’t there. That’s why I wouldn’t critique anybody -- I would never critique another cop. You know, if -- I wasn’t there. I don’t know if they had intel that this guy had a gun. I don’t know if this guy was a gang member. I don’t know if he’s a homicide suspect. ... And it’s tough because a lot of people don’t realize you’re messing with -- cops are normal people. And they got families, and they gotta go home to families, and adjust to family life after -- you know, there’s days we get a couple guns off the street, and you’re driving home, and that’s on your mind. And you get home, and you gotta shut it off. You don’t want your wife, your kids to know any of that stuff. So as soon as you hit that door, you’re going from 100 miles an hour dealing with drug dealers, gang members, that wanna kill you, and then you go home, and now you’re with your wife and stuff, and you’re just, you know, fake smile, and you’re sittin’ there, and ‘How was work?’ ‘It was fine. No big deal.’… You know, you try to not to bring that stuff home. It ain’t easy.”

No one at the table could explain how Buffalo’s police officers had gone so long without a fatal shooting. It was something like a miracle. Forty-six days later, on May 7, 2017, Officers Joseph Acquino and Justin Tedesco pulled over a 26-year-old man named Jose Hernandez-Rossy. The incident remains under investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office, but these facts are undisputed:

It was a cool Sunday afternoon near the shore of Lake Erie. The traffic stop led to a violent struggle. Acquino’s right ear was nearly torn off. Tedesco took aim and pulled the trigger.



Photography by Melissa Golden.
Skin and text art by Alejandro Cardenas.