A black police officer in New York City, Cariol Horne, who was fired in 2008, for forcibly removing a white officer in a chokehold with a black man after being handcuffed, has now been reinvoked by the judge after 15 years, saying her firing was wrong.
On Tuesday, in an outcome explicitly informed by the police killing of George Floyd, a state court judge vacated an earlier ruling that affirmed her firing, essentially rewriting the end of her police career, and granting her the back pay and benefits she had previously been denied.
The encounter that led to Ms Horne’s firing began in 2006, a dispute between a woman and a former boyfriend whom she had accused of stealing her Social Security check, in Buffalo.
When the officers tried to arrest the former boyfriend, the situation turned violent and called for backup, to which Officer Cariol Horne responded, and encountered a White officer, who appeared to be in a rage, punching a handcuffed Black man in the face repeatedly as other officers stood by.
Ms Horne said she saw Officer Kwiatkowski, (the White Officer) put the Black man in a chokehold, and heard him say he could not breathe, which she forcibly struck Officer Kwiatkowski in the face, pulled him backwards by his collar and jumped on him, and began to trade blows with him.
Officer Kwiatkowski said he had grabbed him around the neck and shoulders in a bear hug headlock from behind.
Officer Horne was reassigned, hit with departmental charges and offered a four-day suspension, which she turned down and after the court hearings in 2007 and 2008, the Police Department found her use of physical force against a fellow officer unjustifiable, and fired her in May 2008, one year short of the 20 on the force she needed to collect her full pension.
The dispute between Ms Horne and Officer Kwiatkowski did not end when she left the Police Department, he sued her for defamation and won a $65,000 judgment against her.
After she was fired, she did odd jobs to make a living, including as a truck driver and sometimes lived in her car.
Meanwhile, in an internal investigation from the Police Department, Officer Kwiatkowski was cleared of all charges and promoted to lieutenant the same year Horne was fired.
The death of Mr Floyd in Minneapolis, where former Officer Derek Chauvin is now on trial for murder in the killing, brought new attention to her case and the circumstances surrounding it, three other officers who were present when Mr Floyd died were also charged in the killing.
She filed a lawsuit seeking to vacate the firing, citing the case involving Mr Floyd, shortly before that, she and others in Buffalo had begun to press members of the city’s legislature, the Common Council, to pass a so-called duty-to-intervene law requiring officers to step in when one of their own used excessive force.
The Buffalo Police Department had adopted such a rule in 2019, and last fall the council approved what it called “Cariol’s law” by a vote of 8 to 1.
The judges, Justice Dennis E. Ward of the State Supreme Court in Erie County, wrote “the legal system can at the very least be a mechanism to help justice prevail, even if belatedly,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., he said, “The time is always right to do right.”
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” has become a national rallying cry against police brutality.
Darius G. Pridgen, the council president, said a confluence of factors including Ms Horne’s advocacy from firsthand experience and the increased scrutiny on police misconduct in the wake of Mr Floyd’s death had created an environment for action.
Mr Pridgen said, “During the protests, we were trying to reach for ways to hold bad police officers accountable,” said after the killing of Mr Floyd, “the timing was perfect.”
The law also gives officers who have been terminated in the past 20 years for intervening to stop the use of excessive force a chance to challenge their firings. In an unusual twist, Ms Horne’s suit cited the law named for her to argue for that outcome.
Ms Horne’s lawyer, W. Neil Eggleston, in an interview said “Her conduct should have been encouraged and instead she was fired,” further saying that although she had been fired for wrongfully intervening in an arrest, her actions had been consistent with what is expected of police officers: She had kept a civilian safe.
Meanwhile, Officer Kwiatkowski’s own police career ended under a cloud, he retired in 2011 while facing an internal affairs investigation and he was indicted the next year on federal civil rights charges stemming from the arrest of four Black teenagers.
He ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in prison.
In a statement, the 53-year-old Ms Horne celebrated the decision, saying, “My vindication comes at a 15-year cost, but what has been gained could not be measured, I never wanted another police officer to go through what I had gone through for doing the right thing.”