May 21, 2022

Responding to Another Horrific Tragedy: A Conversation with Buffalo Police Commissioner Joe Gramaglia


PERF members,

It comes out of the blue. A text message. Then a news bulletin. Then “breaking news.” (Of course, everything seems to be breaking news these days.) And the first thing you see is the name of the city.

So last Saturday when I heard the city was Buffalo, I thought of all the things I love about that city. Tim Russert and his indomitable style and tough questions. The Bills playing the Patriots. The time when then-Police Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske commandeered a snow truck to catch a robber. Or seeing Rocco Diina, another former Commissioner, out for an early morning run before a PERF meeting. And more recently Joe Gramaglia, the current Commissioner, coming to PERF meetings and attending our Senior Management Institute for Police last summer, eager to take it all in.

Like most of you, I watched in horror as the events in Buffalo unfolded. Another mass shooting that took the lives of beautiful, innocent people – compounded by the fact that the victims were targeted because of the color of their skin. How can this happen – and continue to happen – in America today?

When tragedies like this occur, first responding officers can turn to a playbook. There are generally accepted practices, like those detailed in PERF’s 2014 report. And most officers have gone through active-shooter training and regular re-training.

But for police chiefs, there is no ready playbook. Their responsibilities in these situations are vast and complex – they go far beyond the initial response. And the dynamics of each incident are unique. So chiefs have to rely on their instincts, their judgment, resources like this PERF report, and what they may have learned from others.

I called Joe Gramaglia this past Wednesday to get an update on the situation in Buffalo and how he was doing. Joe is a 28-year-veteran of policing who has spent the last 26 years with the Buffalo Police Department. He was sworn in as Commissioner just two months ago. He likes to say that policing is “kind of the family business.” His father was a New York State trooper, and several uncles and cousins have served in policing as well.

Here are highlights of our conversation (edited for length and clarity).

How did you first learn about the shooting, and what did you do?

I got the first phone call at about 2:35 that afternoon from our Dispatch lieutenant, who is the supervisor overseeing the 911 Center. Typically, for critical incidents, we have a text message chain with the executive command staff and a few other Communications people. But if something is really bad, then the phone calls get made. And this incident was obviously a “phone call” situation.

The lieutenant initially said there were five people shot and one was dead. My first inkling was maybe this was a gang shooting. Then, they said we’re up to six victims now, so I got myself dressed and started heading right to the scene. It took me maybe 10 or 15 minutes to get there. My deputy commissioner called me, and all he said was, “It’s bad – it’s bad.” He said there were eight dead, and I realized this was something completely different. This was an active shooter. And it became even worse when I got there and found out that there were up to 10 victims, possibly more. By that point, the suspect was in custody, but the crowd was very large and it was still very hectic.

I wasn’t there very long when I look over and see the SAC of the FBI Field Office pulling up. He did the same thing and responded right away. We’re friends. The State Police was on the phone. So was the sheriff’s office. I started getting phone calls from lots of partners. We instantly started organizing, working together to get the scene under control in an organized fashion. Understanding what you have to do in these situations – how you have to get control – is really important.

I’m sure you had politicians and victims’ families showing up. How did you manage that?

It was about an hour into the event when we had elected officials showing up, and more people, including family members, were coming. We knew we needed to get a handle on this.

Somebody mentioned that we needed a “family assistance center” where we could bring family members. So we kicked into gear and started identifying possible locations that were nearby, but not right at the scene. There is a school right up the street, and we were able to move pretty quickly and establish that as the family center.

The city owns a television recording studio that is about a block-and-a-half away, and we used that as the location for the elected officials. We also took a vacant parking lot and got our command bus rolling there as the command center.

Tell us about Aaron Salter, the retired Buffalo police officer who was killed.

I knew who he was, but I never worked directly with him. We were in different assignments. But the story of what he did is remarkable.

He got off 11 shots at the suspect. What that did was back the suspect up and slowed him down for a few seconds. Because of him firing on this guy, at least a half dozen people were able to continue running through the cash registers toward the back of the store and escape out the back door. That made a big difference.

Aaron Salter was just completely outgunned and out-equipped because of the heavy ballistic vest that the shooter had on. He was on target with at least one shot that we know of, and it had no effect. We found a mushroomed round that fell off the shooter’s tactical vest when he took it off.

Aaron is absolutely a hero. He’s the first hero. We say all the time that people like him “sacrificed his life.” I never really liked that term. His life was taken from him. And it was taken from him in service to others, defending others. He was doing his life’s work – police work and trying to protect people.

I understand that some reporters have asked why the shooter wasn’t immediately killed by your cops. What do you say to that question?

We had a press conference on Monday, and I got asked that by a local reporter. Why didn’t we shoot and kill the gunman? How did he walk out of there alive?

I just watched the body-cam video today. But knowing what I knew already and what I saw on store surveillance video, the way the shooter was equipped and the firepower he had outmatched our initial officers. They would have had to take cover, and he could have gone back in the store and found more victims. There were dozens of people still in the store hiding.

I’m very proud of the actions our officers took. They immediately surrounded him and calmly gave him directions, which he complied with. So they are the other heroes. And they are heroes for a couple of reasons. Number one, their response time was less than one minute. It appears his plans were to leave the store, get back in his car, and calmly drive away, probably right past responding police officers. He had a direction, he named stores, he named other places, and he was going to continue doing this. The almost immediate response time stopped him before he could get out and do more, and before we could locate him.

Two of the four officers had received ICAT training [Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics]. One of the officers whose body-cam I viewed had not yet received ICAT, but I am amazed at his demeanor and how calm he was. There were three bodies lying in the parking lot at the entrance to the store, literally right where the guy was surrendering. And there was not an excited utterance out of this officer. He really kept his cool.

You came right out and unequivocally called this a racially motivated attack.How were you able to come to that conclusion so quickly?

There were some things that were very clearly written on his gun as to what he meant and what his motivation was. As we were prepping for the first news conference, I said, “There is absolutely no way that we’re going out there and not saying what it is right off the bat.”

I said we need to get that message out very clearly. This has to be transparent, and we have to be up-front. Let’s get it out that he doesn’t live here, that he lives more than three-and-a-half hours away – more than 200 miles away. He is not part of our community. He has nothing to do with our community. This is not someone in Buffalo that perpetrated this massacre on our own people, on our own residents.

And let’s get it out that it was a racially motivated attack. I was not going to stand there and use some of the old tag lines like “it’s under investigation.” The community picked up on it pretty quickly. They already knew it was a racially motivated attack. They needed to hear us say it.

What were you drawing on as you were thrust into this situation?

First and foremost was partnerships. You hear it time and time again when you’re coming up, but now I can say how truthful it is: the time to meet your partners is not after something happens but beforehand. And it’s more than just knowing each other. We’re all friends. We meet quite frequently.

The resources they have been able to provide to us were critical. We’re a large city police department, but we still have a police department to run and calls for service to answer. The State Police, the Sheriff’s Office, our local transit police all provided resources to help us block intersections and manage the scene. And the FBI with its Crime Scene Unit – it’s like nothing I’ve ever been exposed to.

Throughout this week it’s been – no egos, no arguments. It’s just been, “Let’s get it done.”

How have your colleagues and peers assisted you?

All the major city chiefs have been reaching out to me, and the unfortunate thing is so many of them have been through this before. They’ve been reaching out with advice on a multitude of levels – both self-care and how to handle things.

Those types of relationships are what really drew me to both PERF and the Major Cities Chiefs Association. When I made district chief, [former Commissioner] Rocco Diina made mention of the MCCA. I went to my first meeting in Long Beach in January 2018, and you had the PERF conference on homelessness at the same time.  So that was my first experience with PERF, and I joined right away.

At my first MCCA meeting, there was a presentation on the Las Vegas mass shooting, which was only three or four months earlier. I also look back on the presentation at SMIP by Dan Oates [on the Aurora, CO theater shooting] and the amount of resources that were coming and where they were staging. The biggest thing you get out of all these presentations is the need to get some control as early as possible, try to establish your perimeters and coordinate the responses with all the other agencies.

And now I will be able to share what I have learned with people coming up.

Has there been anything that has surprised you over the past week?

The one thing I was naïve about was the volume of press and their arrival time. When I left the scene Saturday night, the local news crews and some other cameras were showing up. There’s a vacant lot across the street, and that’s where they’re all camped out so they could have a clear view of the Tops Market.

When I got back very early Sunday morning, I was just amazed – naively amazed – at the mass of national news media that were there. We had to get bike racks in to cordon off the media area to keep people from going in there. And I had two porta-potties delivered for the media. I figured they’d appreciate that.

That’s definitely one thing I was naïve about – how quickly the national media would descend and set up.

How is the Buffalo community doing?

The one thing I saw very early on was that everybody was together. The police, the community – everybody was together, realizing this was a very different scene, a very different situation. Everybody stuck to the same message of “we need to stick together and heal together.” That has been resonating right from the get-go. Being over at the crime scene every day and talking to people, the response has been togetherness.

We had a couple of agitators who tried to stir up the crowd a little bit the day after, and nobody wanted to hear it. It wasn’t the time for that.

That grocery store is the sole source of food for a wide community that lives very close by and does not drive. That store is now closed, and it’s going to be closed for some time. Many people don’t have easy access to food because they don’t have transportation. A lot of volunteers have set up tents. They’re giving away food, they’re cooking meals.

Togetherness is the biggest thing I can say has come out of this.

I want to add one post-script to our conversation. About an hour after I interviewed Joe, he sent me a text message that read: “One final thing, a very understanding wife and family!  My wife has taken care of everything at home!”