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Family and friends grieve death of man shot by police, seek answers

Mike Desmond

A 32-year-old Buffalo man was shot dead early Wednesday in an encounter with a two-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department in the heart of the city's West Side. Friends and relatives later turned out for a vigil.

Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia was very sparing with details about what happened in the 3 a.m. confrontation near Plymouth and Massachusetts avenues. It was triggered by a radio call of a man with a gun and two-year veteran of the force Officer Elnur Karadzhaev was the first to respond.

The exchange of radio calls over a few seconds provides some details of what happened, leaving father of two Rafael "Pito" Rivera dying in a parking lot, with no time to be taken to the hospital. Police said there is surveillance camera footage of what happened and a loaded gun was found at the scene.

"At approximately 3:05 this morning, officers responded to a man with a gun call in the vicinity of Plymouth and Massachusetts," said Gramaglia. "At that time, the officer encountered a man who had a gun and engaged in a short foot pursuit that ended in a parking lot in the 400 block of Plymouth Avenue. The suspect refused multiple requests by the officer to put the gun down. At that time, the officer discharged his service weapon to stop the immediate threat the suspect posed."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Many vigil signs questioned police action.

Gramaglia said the cause of death of the man who was shot is still being determined by the medical examiner.
Karadzhaev was taken to Erie County Medical Center and was later released. The officer was placed on administrative leave, as is department protocol, while the investigation goes on. He was not wearing a body camera because that test has ended.

Because there was a gun found at the site of the confrontation, the state attorney general's office will not conduct an investigation. The AG has investigated two other fatal officer-involved deaths. In both cases, officers were cleared.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he will investigate and it is underway. Gramaglia said it was armed man against armed police officer.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Two previous state Attorney General investigations of Buffalo Police officers involved in fatal shootings cleared the officers.

"We go through de-escalation tactics and techniques. However, when you get to that highest point which is a loaded weapon, the officer still issued commands to put the weapon down, that's the de-escalation tactics and it got to a point that the officer had to stop the immediate threat and had to discharge his own weapon," Gramaglia said. "The suspect had a deadly weapon, a loaded handgun and, again, the situation and how you address that situation is dictated more often by the suspects, what they do. So, unfortunately, he had this gun in his hand, posed a threat to the officer and, unfortunately, the officer very tragically had to discharge his weapon and end the threat."

A large group of friends and relatives, Just Resisting and Black Love Resists in the Rust later held a bilingual vigil, overshadowed by silver balloons floating in the wind and proclaiming "RIP Pito." Attendee Brenda Miller-Herndon called Pito her second son and is skeptical of the police statements.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Meech, Jose and now Pito. I'm closer with Pito than anybody because I'm the one that basically lives here and I'm the one that he basically came and talked to," Miller-Herndon said. "He was petrified of the cops. This is the reason why I can't believe it was actually him. The systemic part is every cop that's going to kill someone here in Buffalo, the three murders, they didn't get charged for it. Enough is enough."

Vigil attendee Shaketa Redden said it is the duty of activists to object to police activities.

"When someone is killed at the hands of the police to be out for the community, and so I don't know that it necessarily matters what happened, but what I do know is that someone is dead, to not be able to see his family again," Redden said. "To me, it's not warranted. It's not warranted. Someone who left their home at a certain time should be able to return to their home."

Coalition for Economic Justice Executive Director Reverend Kirk Laubenstein called for a leveling of social differences.

"We pray today especially Lord that people in high places, the people in high places will come down, will come down and see this injustice here, this killing," Laubenstein said. 

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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