Former Buffalo, N.Y., Police Officer Cariol Holloman-Horne
Courtesy of Cariol Holloman-Horne

If you are a “good cop” in the United States who has knowledge of what you perceive to be police misconduct or brutality, yet do nothing, then you are not only perpetuating cycles of mistrust and cynicism in communities of color toward law enforcement, but also aiding and abetting the extrajudicial killing of people around this country.

On Nov. 1, 2006, now-former Buffalo, N.Y., Police Officer Cariol Holloman-Horne refused to be that kind of “good cop.” Her case has received regional attention for years, but the recent rash of police killings, particularly the choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, has pushed it into the national glare for the first time.

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The then-19-year veteran, who is African American, was called to the scene of an alleged domestic violence dispute at the home of local musician Neal Mack. Upon her arrival, Mack had already been restrained after allegedly resisting arrest.

“I didn’t call the police and they had no right to be in my home,” Mack, now 62, explained via phone. “My ex-girlfriend was there with her son; she didn’t call them. Her mother was there; she didn’t call them.”

The dispute was over his ex-girlfriend’s Social Security check, and a mail carrier had alerted the cops.

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“We were handling a private issue at my home when [an officer] showed up at my door asking for my mail,” Mack said. “He wouldn’t leave; other officers came and they were beating me in my own home. My son was yelling at them, ‘He can’t breathe.’”

Holloman-Horne and approximately 10 other officers removed Mack from his home.

What happened next has been the subject of multiple court cases and an internal police investigation and brought about the end of Holloman-Horne’s career.

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Holloman-Horne claims that an officer, Gregory Kwiatkowski, began choking Mack without provocation and that she intervened. She says that she told Kwiatkowski to stop and that when he didn’t, she removed his arm from around Mack’s throat. That’s when she says the officer turned his fury on her, punching her so violently in the face that she required dental surgery.

Holloman-Horne was fired from the force in 2008 after an internal investigation and arbitration hearing determined that she was guilty of several counts of obstruction of justice and assaulting a police officer. She maintained all along that she was doing the right thing, trying to protect Mack from harm, and that the blue wall that protects cops and includes the judicial system lined up against her.

Refusing to be silenced, Holloman-Horne has told the same story for years since the incident, never wavering from her version. In 2011 Kwiatkowski sued her for defamation, charging that she destroyed his reputation because of her repeated accusations in the press. He denied that he ever choked the suspect or struck Holloman-Horne in the face. A judge ruled in his favor when Holloman-Horne failed to show up for court. Later, another judge found that Mack was never choked.

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Despite facing an uphill battle to collect her pension (she was two months shy of the 20-year mark) and dealing with lingering injuries from the incident, Holloman-Horne says that she doesn’t regret her actions.

“This man could have died,” Holloman-Horne said. “This man could have died if I wasn’t there. And I believe they would have been fine with that.”

Mack said that once the officers dragged him out of his home and Kwiatkowski began choking him, he believed that he was going to die until Holloman-Horne came to his rescue: “I saw her hand reach out, then I heard Kwiatkowski say, ‘You black bitch,’ and then he hit her in the mouth.”

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“She took the heat. She saved my life. She most definitely saved my life,” said Mack, who later sued the officers but lost his case.

Holloman-Horne was in her 20s when she joined the force in 1988. She told me that she always believed that the system was on the side of justice and that racism wouldn’t be an issue until it was put to the test with her own dismissal.

“Older black female officers on the force were trying to school me,” Holloman-Horne said quietly. “They would tell me, ‘They come for me today, they’ll come for you in the morning.’ But I thought they [white officers] liked me and if I just didn’t act ‘that way,’ I’d be fine.”

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When I asked Holloman-Horne to explain what she meant by “that way,” she said, “I thought it was, they [black officers] were radical. There is racism; yes, racism exists. But I didn’t understand it on the level that I do now.”

Despite being aware of these things, Holloman-Horne still felt that she was different—until she wasn’t. “I thought I was going to win [my case] because I was telling the truth and people are going to see that I’m telling the truth. But it didn’t work that way,” she says.

A superior officer allegedly told her at the time that it could all go away if she accepted a 10-day suspension for assaulting Kwiatkowski, but she refused.

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“Why do I have to take 10 days’ suspension for something that I didn’t do?” Holloman-Horne said she asked the officer in disbelief. “Why not do something to him because he was the one who did something wrong? I didn’t want to take suspension days for something that I didn’t do. He assaulted me.”

Adding fuel to her claim that the blue wall typically trumps black in these situations, two key officers who helped seal Holloman-Horne’s fate—then-Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and First Deputy Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood—are both African American. The Buffalo Police Department did not return a call for comment.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Holloman-Horne said with lingering frustration. “I mean, they’re black. If it weren’t for people like Martin Luther King, they wouldn’t be in those positions, and they just wanted me to sit there and let [Mack] get beat?”

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Speaking with me off the record, a law-enforcement officer in another city said that protocol dictates that Kwiatkowski be reported, but that once you’re behind the blue wall, it’s more complicated: “If you approach a scene and an officer is choking an unrestrained suspect, then the first action is to help that officer restrain him because you don’t know what’s going on. If the suspect is restrained and being choked, then you’re supposed to get the officer off of him and get the suspect in the car.

“Finally,” the officer continued, “you’re supposed to write a supplement report to the arresting officer’s report detailing what you had to do.”

When asked if that procedure is typically followed, the officer’s response was not unexpected: “There is a ton of internal pressure not to report another officer for brutality. If you do report another officer, you see it all the time: You’re talked about and ostracized because you didn’t have your fellow officer’s back. In [Holloman-Horne’s] case, she was probably under tremendous pressure not to report the arresting officer’s [alleged] actions.”

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Holloman-Horne is currently a truck driver struggling to support her five children while she continues to fight for her pension. A GoFundMe page has been set up for supporters, and there has been other movement in her favor. Several local newspapers, including the Buffalo News and Buffalo Challenger, have raised awareness about Holloman-Horne’s fight for her pay, and the Buffalo Common Council has asked the state to investigate some remedy that might restore her pension.

After a polarizing trial in June 2007, all charges against Mack were dropped when a judge ruled his arrest unlawful, but his encounter with police that day forever changed his life.

As for Kwiatkowski?

He was promoted to lieutenant before being allowed to retire in 2011 with his pension, following a series of violent incidents, including being suspended for choking a subordinate while on duty; punching another officer when he was off the clock; and a recent indictment on charges that he, along with two other officers, violated the civil rights of four teens, including a handcuffed African-American boy, in using excessive force after the boy was already under arrest—including his being shot with a BB gun.

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A heroic act like the one Holloman-Horne describes does not minimize the systemic profiling, oppression and brutalization by law enforcement that decimates African-American communities, but her case does shine the light on how deeply racism is embedded within police culture and the stark fact that when you’re a black woman, even being blue can’t protect you from white privilege.