In the US District Court, Western District of New York, a Buffalo woman, Christine Townsend, is suing the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Police Department, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and two Police Officers, Mark Vara and Kelly Craig, for violating her civil rights under 42 U.S.C § 1983, known as ‘Section 1983’.
Townsend, who is represented by Buffalo attorney Matthew Albert, is alleging unlawful seizure, unlawful arrest, unlawful imprisonment, trespass, excessive force, battery, slander, malicious prosecution, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from events that began at Townsend’s residence on May 9th, 2014 which she alleges violated her constitutional rights as established in the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
This is a serious case of alleged police misconduct and brutality and, with Albert representing the plaintiff, the stakes are not small. The Buffalo attorney has become the leading lawyer in this city for people who have alleged abuse by police.
Townsend, who is a registered nurse, was never arrested before the incident occurred at her home on Briggs Avenue, in the Riverside section of Buffalo.
The facts alleged in her lawsuit are that on May 8th, 2014, in the evening, she noticed two menacing pit bulls running loose in the street. When they came on her porch, and jumped at her door and her window, they frightened her three dogs and her nine-year-old daughter inside the house.
Townsend called 911.
After a long period of no response, she called 911 again, concerned that the dogs might break through her window. About a half hour after her second call, with the pit bulls still on her porch, a Buffalo Police vehicle drove past her residence but did not stop.
Townsend was upset and again called police dispatch. She threatened to report the police officers who drove by and failed to stop to a supervisor.
Finally, the pit bulls left her porch to roam other streets, and then the police showed up.
Many neighbors have said these dogs are fearsome and will come right at you. They are not friendly dogs, neighbors say.
At first the police wouldn’t get out of their car.
Police Officer Mark Vara claims Townsend said to him, “Get out of your car and do your ‘fucking job.’”
Townsend said Vara and Police Officer Kelly Craig were yelling at her at the same time.
Vara asked her, “If we shot the dogs would that make you happy?”
It is not in dispute that there was yelling and swearing back and forth with Craig repeating herself, “Where do the dogs live? Where do the dogs live?”
Both of the officers were shouting over each other. Vara was the loudest, according to neighbors.
He was yelling, screaming at Townsend, and according to Townsend, saying something about “scumbags in this ‘fucking’ neighborhood” thinking the police are at their beck and call.
Officer Craig says it was Townsend who was swearing, using vulgarities, and “acting in a hostile manner.”
What is not in dispute is that Ofc. Craig shouted to Townsend to come outside and show them at which house the two dogs lived. Townsend said the dogs lived three doors down from her home but she wasn’t certain. Ofc. Craig heard her because Ofc. Vara was shouting loudly.
Ofc. Craig was also shouting, “Where do the dogs live? Where do the dogs live?”
“Three doors down,” Townsend said.
Ofc. Craig said, “Come out and show me,”
Townsend went as far as the sidewalk in front of her house and pointed to the house.
Ofc. Vara shouted, “Go back in the house and shut the door and mind your own ‘fucking business.’”
At one point – and it is not clear what triggered it – Ofc. Vara moved up the porch steps to the screen door. Ofc. Craig was behind him.
When Townsend looked at Ofc. Vara’s badge and asked him what his name was, Ofc. Vara lunged and opened the door, grabbed Townsend’s left arm, pulling her out onto her porch. He turned her around, pushed her against the house, pulled her arms behind her back and handcuffed her.
Next door lives Wilfredo Pena. From inside his apartment he heard Ofc. Vera shouting. He came out to see if it was a domestic – an angry man shouting at a woman.
He got out in time to witness the arrest.
Pena said, “[Townsend’s] daughter starts yelling and crying and he actually pulled her and yanked her out of the house… The door to the house was open. The screen door was like she’s like holding it from inside her house. That’s when he grabbed her… she’s saying ‘my daughter, my daughter,’ because he’s pulling. As soon as I get to the porch he’s grabbing her and pulling her. She was going back, he’s going forward. And he eventually stronger, he pull her out of the house.”
In handcuffs, Ofc. Vara dragged Townsend down the porch steps, until Townsend fell head first onto the ground.
Ofc. Vara had his arm behind her as he was pushing her forward, down the steps. Ofc. Vara disputes he was being rough but insists that she was uncooperative. “We weren’t physically fighting,” Ofc. Vara said.
As he was escorting her down the porch steps, Townsend was crying, “my daughter, my daughter.”
Wilfredo Pena was watching. He said, “He’s pulling her, he’s dragging her… She’s like resisting to come down, he’s pulling her, she falls. She’s just trying to stay with her daughter. She was saying ‘my daughter’, because she didn’t have no one. He’s pulling her, she’s trying to go back, ‘my daughter, my daughter.’ She’s – ‘I got no one there.’ She comes and goes down the steps.”
At the last porch step there’s a short walkway and then another step that leads to the sidewalk. Townsend was pushed to the ground, she claims. She hit the pavement hard. She was unable to get up, having torn her ankle.
Townsend recalls, “It was the left side of my body. My leg… the left knee because that’s where I felt pain on the left side of my body. My ankle had a lot of pain at that point. It felt like it had twisted, like it had rotated some unnatural motion into that leg, but the fall to the ground was so fast. I don’t really know certainly what position I landed but I do recall I landed forward.”
She was trying to get the attention of a neighbor so she could come and help her daughter call a family member to come and get her.
Ofc. Vara said he didn’t push her but Townsend threw herself onto the ground.
In a deposition, he was asked by Townsend’s attorney, Matt Albert, “It’s your testimony that my client threw herself onto the ground?”
Ofc. Vera said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Another neighbor, Patricia Barclay, also witnessed the scene. “I saw as I was going across the street the police officers pulling her down the stairs… It was all very quick. She — basically, he pulled her down the porch. By the time I got there she was on the ground and I asked what was going on. They said they were there because for the dogs. Chris [Townsend] was worried about her daughter.
“When she was telling me that Cassandra was in the house, said — she was like ‘my daughter’s in the house,’ [Ofc. Vara] said ‘you should have thought about that, shut the fuck up.”
After a while Ofc. Vara demanded that Townsend “get up” off the pavement.
She said, “I can’t get up.”
He said, “You were fine a minute ago, now you can’t get the fuck up. I’ll get you up” and he yanked her off the ground and pulled her upright.
Barclay recalled, “Chris [Townsend] was not yelling, she was not screaming, from anything that I heard, and he just seemed to be rough. But when she fell, that he’s there trying to pull. Then [Officer Craig] came to try help him get her up because she couldn’t get up.”
Pena recalls, “even when she fall, he still had her hand pulling and tried to drag her from the floor. And that’s when the officer [Craig] came too and they grabbed her and put her inside the car.”
Barclay recalls, “They put her in the car and closed the door so I couldn’t talk to her. I spoke to the male officer [Vara]. I asked him what was going on, and he said it was about that they had gotten a phone call about the dogs. And I believe I said, ‘Well, then why is Chris in trouble?’ And he said she had sworn at them. He wanted identification for Chris, and Cassandra got the wallet for him and I asked him if this was really all necessary. I said she’s a good person, she’s an RN. He said ‘Well, then she must be on drugs then the way she acted.’ I said ‘Well, that’s not true.’
“And then he got her identification. He was about to leave and I said ‘Could I follow you down there and bail her out.’ And he said no, she would have to spend the night.”
The police took her to the parking lot of Tim Hortons on Niagara Street.
Then they started yelling at her again asking her why she would want to get them into trouble, according to Townsend.
Both police officers said they could not recall if they stopped that night with Townsend at the parking lot at Tim Hortons.
According to Townsend, in the dark parking lot at about 3 am, Ofc. Vara expounded: that they were good people that came from good families and did she even have a job and ‘what the fuck do you do for a living?”
At one point Ofc. Craig asked if Townsend thought they deserved to be treated that way after what they do all day, was it right that she treated them the way that she did.
“Without us your daughter, mother, and you would be victims of gang rape,” the officer said.
Threatening and vulgar, according to the allegations in the lawsuit, at that point Townsend said she feared for her safety being in a parking lot alone with them. At that point she just kept her mouth shut.
At the holding center, she was removed from the vehicle and put into a cell then brought out of the cell and into another room to have her mug shot and fingerprints then put back into the cell. Ofc. Vara came back there and told her that there was a warrant for her arrest in Cheektowaga.
Townsend said that it couldn’t possibly true.
It was untrue.
Finally, Ofc. Craig removed the handcuffs, and told her that they did her a favor and she should be thanking them.
Townsend was then issued appearance tickets by Vara, charging Townsend with five criminal complaints for three separate, distinct violations of disorderly conduct, as well as resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration.
Townsend was told she could leave the Holding Center. Without money, injured and with no means of transportation to get home she walked to a nearby store and asked to use the phone and called a cab.
Subsequently, Albert made a motion to dismiss all charges against Townsend, which was granted by Buffalo City Court Judge, the Hon. Joseph Fiorella.
Now the worm has turned.
Townsend is bringing an action, and it’s more than an appearance ticket.
It’s an exploration of the conduct of two police officer who seemed, if the allegations are true, to be out of control. They accused Townsend of being on drugs, but their actions seemed to have made observers wonder.
It is a public matter now.
The complaint that Albert drafted makes a call, too, for a higher purpose. Prevention of abuse.
Albert’s client’s complaint reads:
“The City of Buffalo Police Department’s indifference to an obvious need for training of its officers both in the laws pertaining to unlawful seizures as well as overly charged, used, and abused statutes such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstruction of governmental administration.
“The Department condones a policy of ‘us against them,’ leading to many officers discarding any notion of protecting and serving its citizens and instead, violating their civil rights to ensure they obtain more court pay.
“Vara and Craig have a financial incentive to make wrongful and brutal arrests such as the one they made against the Plaintiff when not supervised properly by their superiors.
“This failure of the Department to adequately train its officers resulted in the Defendants’ actions that caused the Plaintiff harm, and will result in more unnecessary brutality unless corrective measures are taken by the City of Buffalo Police Department.
“Furthermore, the City of Buffalo, the City of Buffalo Police Department, and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda tacitly condone the practice of unlawful arrests by only performing a superficial, biased, and artificial review of said claims which indubitably result in the erroneous and contrived finding that the officer’s actions were proper.
“Such arrest and prosecution was done without probable cause, where circumstances ended in favor of the complainant, and the circumstances in their totality, as set forth in this complaint, clearly are indicative of malice and bad faith undertaken by Defendants Vara and Craig, as would be found by any reasonable person viewing these facts objectively.”
As for Townsend, she may have suffered permanent damage to her ankle.
She said, “I cannot ice skate. I cannot take my dogs for a walk,” she said. “I have to limit places that I can take my daughter that would require a lot of walking, especially if it’s a day that I’ve worked. I have to be very careful what shoes I wear so that I can try to keep my ankle in a stable position and keep it comfortable. I have not been able to do much in my yard or the exterior of my house especially. I haven’t been able to do a lot of inside work that needs to get done as well.”
Artvoice takes allegations of police misconduct very seriously.
We also consider the need to protect public servants from unwarranted litigation essential. Transparency is not only the remedy for justice for that which occurred in the past, it is a deterrent for the future.
In the interest of giving our readers an opportunity to review the lawsuit described in the story more fully, we are publishing the complaints, the depositions and other pertinent case documents online.
Click on the links below.