She was fired from the Buffalo police department before she hit her 20 year mark, and finally was vindicated by a decision almost 15 years in the making that her termination was wrongful. So what did former Buffalo cop Cariol Horne do that was so bad that she was thrown off the force? She saved a life.*
On Nov. 1, 2006, a postal worker flagged down a patrol officer to report an argument between a man and a woman at a two-unit house on Walden Avenue. Among the Buffalo police officers responding was Horne.
As the officers attempted to push the man out of the house, Horne said she saw Officer Greg Kwiatkowski put the man in a chokehold and she fought Kwiatkowski to stop him.
Cops don’t do that. Not use a chokehold, which was routine, but interfere with another cop’s use of force. Cops back each other up. In their minds, their life depends on it. To physically challenge a cop in the midst of a takedown is a declaration of war, cop on cop. Ask Serpico, you don’t do that and remain a cop.
Cariol Horne saw Kwiatkowski about to needlessly kill a man. Maybe the man was engaged in bad conduct, but it wasn’t their job to kill him or hurt him, just arrest him and leave it to the system to decide what was to become of him. Horne made the decision to save this man’s life, even if Kwiatkowski wasn’t too worried about whether his chokehold was necessary, justified (is a chokehold ever justified?) or about to kill someone.
Saving a life might be considered the best thing a cop could do. Isn’t that what we hope cops will do? But not for Cariol Horne.
Two years later, after a hearing before an arbitrator that Horne insisted be held publicly, the arbitrator found Horne guilty on 11 of 13 internal charges. She was fired, with 19 years credited toward her job. That was one year shy of what the city police officers must accrue in order to retire under the state system and receive a pension. However, she would still qualify to receive a partial pension from the state at age 55.
But Horne wanted her full police pension.
Horne’s termination came almost 15 years ago. She likely expected to serve as a police officer beyond her 20 years. She made it 19 years, so it’s not as if she was some snot-nosed kid who had no sense of right and wrong, necessary force and abusive force. She had been around the block. She knew what it meant to challenge a fellow cop. She wasn’t some hyper-sensitive kid, unfamiliar with the ways cops worked on the street. If she was so concerned, so clear in her head that she was witnessing an enraged cop, out of control, about to kill a perp, that she put everything on the line to prevent a needless death, you have to give Horne’s training and experience the credit it deserves.
Yet, an arbitrator concluded she was at fault. There is no one more compliant, more forgiving, of police officers than the arbitrators who decide these matters of police officer misconduct. If a cop who gave a homeless man a shit sandwich can win his job back in arbitration, what does it take for a cop to lose? Interfering with another cop to prevent him from killing a guy.
Horne won’t get her job back, and the 15 years lost to her law enforcement career are gone forever. But she will get her pension as if she did her 20 and out. In ruling for Horne, Justice Dennis Ward recognized the value of Horne’s bravery in doing the cop-unthinkable act of trying to prevent abusive police conduct following the string of deaths such as Eric Garners and George Floyd,
“The legal system can at the very least be a mechanism to help justice prevail, even if belatedly,” the judge, Justice Dennis E. Ward, wrote.
His ruling also invoked the deaths of Mr. Floyd and Eric Garner, a Black man from Staten Island whose dying words — “I can’t breathe” — have become a national rallying cry against police brutality.
“The time is always right to do right,” added Justice Ward, of State Supreme Court in Erie County, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Horne’s act happened long before “I can’t breathe” become the phrase uttered by pretty much every person taken into custody, reducing it to unhelpful at best in trying to figure out whether the person is being choked to death or just saying the words because that’s what seized people say. Horne’s act wasn’t consistent with police conduct that was either fashionable or publicly sought back then. Tough on crime was still the public sentiment, and there was no public support for a cop to use her force to stop another cop from taking a life. But Cariol Horne did it anyway, risking her career to save one person’s life from being snuffed out by another cop.
She’s going to get her pension. She should get a statue, but it’s far more likely that cops will explain how she endangered fellow cops by saving a life because, although they will acknowledge that cops aren’t perfect, they just can’t bring themselves to admit that a fellow cop might have lost his head and was about to unjustifiably kill some guy but for the intervention of Cariol Horne.
*The New York Times describes the incident somewhat differently.
It was a cold November day in Buffalo when Officer Cariol Horne responded to a call for a colleague in need of help. What she encountered was a white officer who appeared to be “in a rage” punching a handcuffed Black man in the face repeatedly as other officers stood by.
Officer Horne, who is Black, heard the handcuffed man say he could not breathe and saw the white officer put him in a chokehold. At that point, court documents show, she forcibly removed the white officer and began to trade blows with him.