As It Happens

Former Buffalo police officer who was fired for stopping a colleague's chokehold vindicated in court

For years, Cariol Horne has maintained that she was fired from her job as a police officer in Buffalo, N.Y., for saving a man's life. And now, she's won her day in court.

State judge overturns earlier ruling, orders police force to give Cariol Horne her backpay and pension

Cariol Horne marches during a protest in September 2020. Horne, a Buffalo police officer who was fired for trying to stop another officer from using a chokehold on a handcuffed suspect, has won a years-long legal fight to collect her pension. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

For years, Cariol Horne has maintained that she was fired from her job as a police officer in Buffalo, N.Y., for saving a man's life. And now, she's been vindicated in a court of law.

Horne, who is Black, was fired from the Buffalo Police Department after she says she stopped a white officer from performing a chokehold on a Black suspect in 2006. That same officer was later convicted of violating the civil rights of four Black teenagers. 

After a years-long legal battle, a state Supreme Court judge overturned Horne's dismissal on Tuesday, clearing her name and allowing her to collect back pay and the pension she's been long denied.

"It feels awesome. It feels absolutely wonderful that after 15 years that I can now breathe a little easier," Horne told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

In his ruling, Judge Dennis Ward references the recent U.S. police killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner, and quotes civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., writing: "The time is always right to do right."

"The judge gets it," Horne said. 

'Greg, you're choking him'

Horne's legal battle began in November 2006. She showed up at the scene of an arrest in progress where she says she saw a white officer repeatedly punching a handcuffed Black suspect while the other officers stood by. 

She says the officer, Gregory Kwiatkowski, put the suspect in a chokehold, and she heard him say, "I can't breathe." Those same words were later uttered by Garner and Floyd before they died at the hands of police, and have become a rallying cry in the fight against police violence.

"I said, 'Greg, you're choking him,' thinking he'll stop, but he didn't," Horne said. "I had to react or he could have been another George Floyd."

People visit a makeshift memorial for George Floyd in his former neighbourhood, in Houston, Texas, on June 10, 2020. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

She says she grabbed Kwiatkowski's arm from around the man's neck. 

The man who was being arrested, Neal Mack, told CBS This Morning last year that he believes Horne saved his life that day. 

But Kwiatkowski and the other officers on scene told a different story — that Kwiatkowski was trying to stop the suspect from grabbing a gun when Horne violently attacked her fellow officer, jumping on his back and pulling on his shirt collar. 

Kwiatkowski stands by that version of events. 

"I guess if you tell a lie long enough, it eventually becomes the truth," he told the Washington Post on Tuesday.

Officer later jailed for civil rights violations

Afterwards, Horne was reassigned and slapped with departmental charges. In 2008, she was fired — just one year short of the 20 she needed to collect her pension. An arbitration process determined she had put the lives of the officers at the scene in danger. Her firing was upheld by the same court that eventually overturned it. 

She stood by her story and Kwiatkowski sued her for defamation, winning a $65,000 US judgment against her. 

"My life was turned upside down," she said. "I was homeless. I went through depression and PTSD from the incident. It was just horrible."

Kwiatkowski, meanwhile, was promoted to lieutenant. But he retired in 2011 while facing an internal affairs investigation. In 2018, he was sentenced to four months in federal prison for civil rights abuses. 

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, he used "unreasonable force" while arresting four Black teenagers suspected of shooting a BB gun in 2009. Prosecutors said Kwiatkowski slammed the teenagers' heads onto a vehicle while yelling obscenities at them.

Ward's decision noted that the original hearing officer "lacked significant information about the conduct of Officer Kwiatkowski and his use of physical force in effecting arrests."

Cariol's Law

Horne says she may have won her pension back, but her battle is far from over. She's using her victory to tout the benefits of legislation she helped draft that requires police to intervene when a colleague is using unreasonable force. 

Cariol's Law was recently signed into effect in Buffalo, and Horne says she wants it to be adopted nationwide, and include a registry of offenders, so officers can't "just hop from department to department when they have a bad record."

"I believe that I have laid the foundation to change the culture, so now they just have to adhere to it. And if not, maybe a judge like the honourable Judge Ward can make that possible so that bad officers will be held accountable if they don't do what they're supposed to do and stop police brutality if they see it happening," she said.

"Police officers are the only ones who can do that. Because as we saw in the George Floyd case, there were bystanders and none of them could go up and save George Floyd's life. But one of those three officers could have."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Cariol Horne produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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